Understanding nutrition labels is absolutely necessary in this day and age. Your health and good looks may very well depend on it. The nutrition label offers all information about the respective food product at a glance. If you properly "decode" this information, you're able to tell right away what foods are good for you and what foods should be avoided.
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Fortunately, "decoding" nutrition labels is quick and easy to master. And since most food products offered for sale nowadays have a nutrition label, it makes sense to take the time and learn to "read" these labels.
The nutrition label is usually a rectangular patch bearing the title "Nutrition Facts". It tells us the following information:
(see examples here)
- Serving Size and Number of Servings per Container
Note: The Serving Size represents the recommended portion for a one-time helping of the respective food. For example: Serving Size 1 oz, or Serving Size 4 crackers, or Serving Size 1 container (depending on the product).
- Next, the nutrition label tells us the Amount per Serving.
In other words, it tells us how many calories, fat, carbs, protein, etc, are contained in one serving of the respective food. This is the most important information the nutrition label brings, and this is what you must learn to interpret properly.
The label lists the various items in order, one below another, as follows:
- First, you will see the number of Calories - which refers to calories brought by one serving of the respective aliment. As you grow more familiar with food labels, you will see this number is usually in the range of 50-300 calories. In other words, this is considered to be an appropriate portion of any food. This is a principle we're going to apply extensively in PORTION CONTROL.
Ok, so we know how many calories per serving our food product contains. And we also know the recommended serving size. By comparing these 2 elements, we can tell at a glance how caloric the respective aliment really is. For example: If the serving size is 1 oz and the number of calories per serving is 180, we know right away the respective product is rather caloric, i.e. it brings a high number of calories for a relatively small helping. In such cases, we must be especially careful not to exceed the recommended serving size. (By the way, the above example refers to a walnuts: This is a fairly caloric aliment, but extremely good for your health and also good for weight control if consumed in the right amounts - i.e. no more than 1 oz per day, which is about 7 walnuts or 14 halves).
- To the right of the total calorie number, on the same row, you will find the number of Calories from Fat. In itself, however, this number has little to tell us - since some types of fats are healthy and others are not. Therefore, a higher number of calories from fat is not necessarily bad. In order to establish how good or bad this is, we must know what type of fats we're dealing with. And to do that, we must read the rest of the food label.
- Below the number of calories, you will see the amount of Total Fat (in grams) contained in one serving of the respective food - including a breakdown into saturated fat, trans fat, etc.
As a general rule, remember this:
- The amount of saturated fat should be as low as possible. A good number would be below 3 gram saturated fat, and the lower the better.
- The amount of trans fat should always be zero. (Trans fats are particularly damaging to health, and predispose to heart disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer.)
- There is no restriction on the amount of unsaturated fats (mono- and polyunsaturated: Contrary to saturated fats, unsaturated fats are generally beneficial for our health.
- Below the amount of fat, you will see the amount of Cholesterol (in milligram) contained in one serving of the respective food. As a general rule, cholesterol should be as low as possible. In any case, avoid products that contain more than 50 mg of cholesterol per serving. And remember: The lower, the better!
- Underneath the cholesterol, the food label lists the amount of Sodium (in milligram) contained in one serving of the respective food. Foods with high sodium should be avoided by those suffering from certain heart conditions (such as heart failure), certain types of liver disease and kidney disease, or a tendency to retain fluid and develop edema (swelling). Sodium (salt) is known to aggravate fluid retention.
- Below the amount of sodium, nutrition labels indicate the amount of Total Carbohydrate (in gram) contained in one serving of the respective food - including a breakdown into dietary fiber and sugars.
Please note that if you add up the dietary fiber and sugars, you will not obtain the amount of carbohydrate listed on the label. Why? Because a certain contingent of carbohydrates is not listed in this breakdown, i.e. the complex carbohydrates such as starch or glycogen. These make up the balance of carbohydrates in the respective food product, up to the total amount listed on the label.
As a general rule, remember this:
- Sugars ("bad carbs") should be as low as possible, preferably below 7 gram per serving.*
Of course, this is impossible in certain aliments such as chocolate, candy, etc. This is why these aliments should be consumed rarely and in limited amounts.
- Regarding the amount of fiber: The higher the fiber in a certain food product, the healthier the respective product, and the more helpful for a weight control diet.
- Finally, below the carbohydrates you will find the amount of Protein (in gram) contained in one serving of the respective food. High protein is usually good for weight control, since it provides the energy to build lean muscle mass and sustain weight loss.
- Nutrition labels also indicate the % Daily Value, which tells you how much of your daily requirement of nutrients comes from each food principle in the respective product.
This value is indicated in percent for each item on the nutrition label (fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, protein) - to the right of the amount of the respective item.
Also, nutrition labels usually indicate the percent of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron brought by the respective aliment.
The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
- At the very end, most nutrition labels provide dietary guidelines for a 2,000 calorie diet and respectively 2,500 calorie diet.
This tells you the amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, and dietary fiber you are supposed to consume as part of your diet, in case you are on a 2,000 calorie diet, or respectively on a 2,500 calorie diet.
Please note: During a weight loss program, a reduced-calorie diet may be necessary, in which case these dietary guidelines must also be reduced.
Below the nutrition label, many products display the list of INGREDIENTS contained in the respective aliment.
A major offender to look out for in this section is "partially hydrogenated vegetable oils".
In short, this is equivalent to trans fats. Please note: Many foods indicate their trans fat
content is zero, but list partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as part of their ingredients.
This is a giveaway that the respective food does in fact contain small amounts of trans
fats (usually below 0.5 grams per serving).
- Certain foods (such as cheeses and meat products) indicate the amount of calories per serving and the serving size, but do not tell you how many servings are in a pack. They simply state: Servings varied. In this case, you need to look at the weight of the package and divide by the weight of one serving, in order to
establish the number of servings. To make things more confusing, many products indicate
the total package weight in grams, but the weight of each serving in ounces. So, you must
make the conversion from grams to ounces (or from kg to pounds).
Here are the conversion data:
1 lb = 16 oz
1 oz = 28.3 gram
Note: Some of the above-mentioned products, especially cheeses, can be quite caloric (i.e., contain a high number of
calories for a relatively small serving size).
- Certain foods (for instance bakery items) show only the ingredient list, without other nutritional information. These foods are usually quite caloric (high in calories), although it's impossible to tell
exactly how many calories they contain. Moreover, these foods usually contain trans fats and
high sugar amounts. Such foods should be consumed infrequently (i.e., 1-2 times a week at most),
and in small portions. And during the initial phase of a weight loss plan, such foods should be avoided altogether.
* For fresh and canned fruit, the healthy sugar limit can be increased to 15-16 gram per serving, since fructose (the main sugar in fruit) has a low glycemic index. Higher sugar levels (up to 20 gram per serving) may be acceptable for canned fruit - provided adequate portion sizes are respected.
See concrete examples of Nutrition Labels
and instructions on how to interpret them
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