The labels on the packages of your favorite foods can tell you a lot about what you’re eating. Whether you’re trying to keep your diabetes under control, stick to a heart healthy diet or shed a few pounds, what you eat can have a tremendous impact on your health. Kelly Struck, RD, a registered dietitian with Atlantic Health System, shares how to read and use nutrition facts labels to make healthy food choices.
At the top of every nutrition facts label you will find information about the serving size of your food. Since the rest of the information on the food label is based on serving size, it’s an important first step to understanding the rest of the label.
The number of calories, listed in large bold print, is for one serving of the food in the package. That means if you eat 1 cup of cereal and the serving size is ½ cup, the calories are doubled. Kelly suggests you measure your food out for a week to understand what a serving size looks like.
“Everyone has different calorie needs and it’s important to keep that in mind,” says Kelly. “You need to listen to your body, take stock of how hungry you are and factor in your health goals when it comes to determining your food choices and portions.”
Fat and cholesterol
Instead of looking at total fat grams, Kelly wants you to look at the type of fat in a product. Healthier sources of fat are lower in saturated fat and contain zero grams of trans fat. Saturated fats are typically found in fatty cuts of meat, full-fat dairy and solid fats such as butter, lard and shortening, while trans fats are often found in foods with hydrogenated oils. Kelly explains that a heart-healthy diet may prioritize foods that contain less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. Limiting your cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams per day is a good general guideline.
However, Kelly points out that not all fats are unhealthy. Many products, including nut butters, avocado products and olive oil, contain healthy fats that have heart protective benefits, help keep you feeling full for longer and boost your good cholesterol levels
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sodium helps to balance the fluids in your body, and it also plays a role in how your cells, muscles and nerves work. However, too much sodium can raise your blood pressure and put stress on your kidneys. Most people eat far more than the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium each day.
Low sodium foods contain less than 40 milligrams of sodium and very low sodium foods contain less than 35 milligrams. Kelly also recommends limiting the salt you add to food and instead use herbs, spices, garlic and lemon for a healthy flavor boost.
To make a healthier choice when selecting carbohydrates such as bread, rice and pasta, it is important to examine the fiber and sugar content of the food. Limiting your intake of refined grains and added sugars can help improve digestion and regulate your blood sugar.
The recommendation for fiber intake is 30 grams per day, and most Americans fall significantly short of that goal. To get the fiber you need, Kelly suggests you eat plenty of fruits and veggies in addition to examining labels.Try to find a bread with more than 3 grams of fiber and a cereal with more than 5 grams of fiber the next time you are grocery shopping. Increasing fiber intake can ensure than you are choosing whole grain products.
Along with unhealthy fats, added sugar on the label is something to watch because it’s easy to eat more than the daily amount of 25 grams for women and 37.5 grams for men. Kelly explains that total sugar includes both the natural sugar and any added sugar in a product. She says people often mistakenly add the amount of total sugar to the amount of added sugar when reviewing nutrition labels.
Protein is essential to building muscle, and lean protein is a cornerstone of a healthy diet. Kelly says most people easily meet their daily protein intake goals. She suggests balancing protein with complex carbohydrates and fiber, such as a sliced apple with peanut butter, or a salad with grilled chicken, to create healthy meals and snacks.
Vitamins and minerals
Kelly reports that vitamin deficiencies are not uncommon. Boosting your intake of vitamins and minerals through food can be better than dietary supplements because you also get fiber and other nutrients. Generally, Kelly recommends that people focus more on the grams or milligrams listed on nutrition labels, but she points out that the percent daily value included on nutrition labels can help you determine if a product is a good source of specific vitamins and minerals.
Above all, Kelly believes in giving people the tools they need to eat foods that meet their nutritional needs and move them closer to their health goals.“It’s so important to understand what is in the food you’re eating, and balance is the key,” she says. “Nutrition facts labels are a great summary of how your food can affect your health.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.