You hear all the time that healthy eating isn’t difficult, but if you aren’t experienced with reading food labels and tracking portion sizes, it can be very overwhelming to get acquainted with these new ideas, terms and nutritional guides. I’ve explained the more common terms below to help you in your healthy eating journey. If there are terms on this you still don’t understand or have any helpful tips or tricks to recommend, please let us know in the comments below!
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
The serving size on a product’s nutrition label is the first area your eyes should go. Unfortunately, the serving size is usually smaller than what you will eat so you will have to multiply according to how much you actually consume. For example, if the serving size is ½ cup and you eat 1 cup you will have to multiply everything on the label by 2. Calories equaling 60 in one serving would equal 120 in two servings, fat equaling 1.5 grams in one serving would equal 3 grams, etc. Directly under serving size will be servings per container. One container may contain 2.5 servings, so if you consume the entire container be sure to multiply nutrition label values by 2.5. Calories equaling 60 in one serving would equal 150 for the container, fat equaling 1.5 grams in one serving would equal 3.75 grams for the container.
The only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than you burn in one day through regular activity and exercise. Therefore, total calories should be the second thing to look for, keeping in mind your individualized caloric needs. The total calories on the label are per serving and include calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein.
% Daily Values
Located on the right side of the label, this is the percentage of each item based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The majority of people do not require exactly 2,000 calories, but you can still use the % Daily Value as a rough guide. For example, if a product has <5% or less of a nutrient, it’s considered to be low in that nutrient and if it has >20%, it’s considered to be high in that nutrient.
Calories from Fat and Total Fat
Fat gets a bad wrap in the dieting world, but our bodies need a certain amount of fat to function efficiently. By choosing the correct amount and types of fat, you can actually see a larger increase in weight loss than cutting it out completely. The majority of labels list calories from fat. This number is total calories provided by the grams of fat in the product. If not provided you can multiply the fat in grams by 9 to find calories from fat. For example, if a product contains 1.5 grams of fat it has 13.5 calories from fat, and 13.5 calories from fat in a 60 calorie item will be 22.5% Fat. Calories from fat are important because you should try to stay between 25 and 35% for each product. If a product is high in fat, eat it in moderation or pair with a lower fat product.
Saturated Fat and Trans Fat
Try to avoid these as much as possible. Saturated fat is found in any animal product, such as cheese, milk, beef, butter, etc., but it is also found in coconut oil and chocolate. High amounts of saturated fats can lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. Saturated fat in moderation is fine, but try to keep it below 7% of your total calories. Trans fat on the hand should be avoided at all costs because any increase will lead to an increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats can be found naturally in beef and dairy products but the majority in American diets is from hydrogenated vegetable shortening (the stuff they deep fry French fries in – uh oh!).
Our body naturally produces cholesterol and depending on genetic and environmental factors your body could produce too much. This leads to damaged vessels, clogged arteries and heart disease. There is still research about diet limitations on cholesterol because our bodies generally only absorb what they need and will slow production if there is too much present, but the rule of thumb is to keep consumption under 300mg a day. Cholesterol is ONLY found in animal products, because plants do not produce cholesterol. Check out 5 Foods To Lower Your Cholesterol.
Sodium is an important electrolyte your body uses in several different processes, but unfortunately, we tend to consume much more than we need. A typical American diet contains 3,436mg of sodium a day and the recommended daily allowance for sodium is only 1 tsp (2,300mg). A high intake of sodium can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. To decrease your intake of sodium, limit processed foods and use herbs and spices instead of salt when cooking.
Like fat, carbohydrates have a bad reputation in the diet world, but carbohydrates are a very important source of energy in the body. In fact, the brain’s only source of energy is glucose produced from various types of carbohydrates. You should try to keep the percent of carbohydrates in a product between 50 and 65%. To find the percent, multiply total grams of carbohydrates by 4 and divide by total calories in the product. For example, if a product contains 8g of carbohydrates it has 32 calories from carbohydrates, and 32 calories from carbohydrates in a 60 calorie item will be 53% carbohydrates. If an item is high or low in carbohydrates, pair it with an item that is low or high, respectively.
Dietary Fiber and Sugar
On the nutrition label, you will see dietary fiber and sugar under carbohydrates. Consuming a greater amount of dietary fiber will help digestion, lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure. Total intake for the day should be close to 38mg to see the greatest benefits. Limiting sugar intake can help control blood sugar levels, which is extremely important when dieting. If blood sugar levels spike too high, your body will take measures to lower it quickly. This leads to a severe drop in blood sugar, dizziness and hunger. Don’t rule out sugar completely; just be smart about which kinds you choose to consume.
Many people believe consuming the largest amounts of protein possible will lead to the leanest body. Although protein is extremely important to build muscle and other tissues within the body, it should still be consumed in moderation. The majority of high protein foods are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which as discussed previously, should be kept at minimum consumption. In addition, any excess calories from protein will be stored as fat within the body, leading to weight gain. Maintaining a balanced diet is always the best way to lose weight and keeping protein between 10-35% will help you do this. To find the percent, multiply total grams of protein by 4 and divide by total calories in the product. For example, if a product contains 3 grams of protein it has 12 calories from protein, and 12 calories from protein in a 60 calorie item will be 20% protein.
Vitamins and Minerals
Most nutrition labels only provide a few vitamin and mineral values, the most common being Vitamins A and C, Calcium and Iron. These values are different from % Daily Values because they are not based on a 2,000 calorie-diet. Instead, they are based on the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) value of the vitamin or mineral. For example, the DRI of calcium is 1,000mg for adults 19-50 years old. If the nutrition label says calcium 4%, it means there is 40mg.
Finally, before you decide to buy a product, be sure to check the ingredients list. Several items used commonly in products can be detrimental to your health. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) can lead to neurological problems, High Fructose Corn Syrup leads to sugar resistance and diabetes, and Aspartame is a sugar alternative found to be a “multi-potential carcinogen”. This website provides a list of 20 different dangerous ingredients to try to avoid. Occasional consumption of these items should not harm you, but try to avoid them as much as possible.