Everyone knows that eating a healthy diet promotes good heath, but not everyone knows how to choose healthy foods. The produce section is usually pretty safe, and recognizing lean protein at the meat counter is easy enough, but the real challenge in identifying healthy foods begins once you start browsing packaged foods. Knowing how to read nutrition labels on food packages can help.
Understand serving sizes.
Serving size information is found at the top of the nutrition label. A serving size is the amount of food or drink that the nutritional facts are based on. Sometimes the serving sizes can surprise you. A packaged muffin could officially be 2 servings. Chances are, you’ll actually eat the whole muffin. So, if you eat 2 servings you need to double the amounts on the nutritional label to know how many calories, nutrients, etc. you’ve eaten.
You can measure out servings if you want to be precise, but that’s not always necessary. It is good to understand what an actual serving looks like, however. Consider measuring out a serving of foods you eat regularly, so you have a reference for serving sizes.
Nutrition labels also include the number of servings that come in the package. This can help you estimate serving sizes. Once again, there can be surprises. That can of soup is officially 3.5 servings, but chances are good that you’ll share it out among the people at the table, even if that’s just two or three people.
Look at calories per serving.
It’s always good to know how many calories are in a serving, but remember that calories aren’t bad. A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy, and your body needs calories every day in order to function properly.
You start getting into trouble when you consume excessive amounts of calories or when you consume calories from foods that do not provide nutritional value. Many different factors contribute to the number of calories you need each day including age, activity level, and your own personal dietary needs.
In addition to calories per serving, nutritional labels include calories from fat. These aren’t additional calories, however. They’re included in total calories per serving.
The FDA considers 100 calories per serving as moderate, and 400 calories per serving as high.
Know what to limit and what to look for.
You want to limit or avoid
- saturated fats
- trans fats
- added or refined sugars.
Look for foods high in
- dietary fiber
- other beneficial nutrients like vitamins and minerals
Nutrition labels won’t list phytonutrients and antioxidents and such.
What does % daily value (%DV) mean?
Percent Daily Value or (%DV) tells you how much of a specific nutrient you’re getting in a single serving based on a daily recommended amount and a 2,000 calories per day diet.
- If you see 25% next to saturated fat, this means that a single serving contains one fourth of the maximum amount of saturated fat the average person should consume in a day.
- Dietary fiber followed by 200% means that you’re getting double the daily recommended amount of dietary fiber in one serving.
Tips for how to read nutrition labels
The absence of unhealthy things doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthy food. Potato chips that have 0 trans fats, for example, are still bad for you. With 10 grams of fat, 2 grams of protein, and only 1.4 grams of fiber, potato chips are not a wise choice. A baked potato has just two tenths of one percent of fat, almost 5 grams of fiber, and 4.3 grams of fiber.
Swapping out highly processed foods like potato chips for whole foods like potatoes virtually always gives you a lot more nutritional value.
Be mindful of marketing tricks. Fat free foods, “all natural” foods, and diet foods aren’t necessarily healthy, or even good for you. Many of these phrases don’t have legal definitions. Some are even tricky — “Made with whole grains” doesn’t mean that all the grains used are whole.
Consider doing your research at home to save time – and make better decisions – in the grocery store. This can help you identify healthy foods before you get to the store.
Reading nutritional labels is important, but be sure to check the ingredient list as well. For example, try to find whole grains instead of foods made with enriched flour. Ingredients will be listed in order of quantity.
It’s important to read nutrition labels at the grocery store, but it’s also important to read them at home. Instead of eating snacks out of the package, try measuring out a serving size so you know exactly what you’re eating.
Nutrition fact labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet for the average person. Of course, some people need more calories, while others need fewer calories. Some people need more of certain nutrients, and other people need to limit certain nutrients. Your doctor can help you determine meet your individual dietary needs. This is just one of the many important things that your doctor will cover with you during your wellness visit. Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor today!