When it comes to our health, we know that what we eat will be the major outcome of how we feel, what we look like and what illnesses may occur in our bodies down the line. Knowing how to properly read food labels is a major key in staying healthy. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t always make this simple. Therefore, it is up to us to educate ourselves so we can protect not only ourselves but our families as well. Diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed throughout the US in the last 20 to 30 years.
First off, I always try to encourage my clients to BUY REAL FOOD. This means food that does not come in packages which have been processed. Food regulations are tricky and there are tons of loop holes. It is no surprise people often believe they are eating healthy, when in actuality they are trusting the misleading labels and packaging. My recommendation is to always try to eat real food.
When and if you do eat packaged things, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when reading food nutrition labels.
A few key things to note before I get into it:
- When food packages use certain terms such as “natural, whole grain, lightly sweetened, made with real fruit juice, no added high fructose syrup, multigrain and pasture raised”, this basically means s**t to us as the consumer.
- There are very little to no regulations of these terms and food companies tend to throw them around on their packaging. I encourage my clients as well as YOU reading this article, to start reading the INGREDIENTS as well as food labels. In order for us all to start taking the biggest precautions necessary to protect our health, it’s important to know exactly what is in our food and on our children’s plates.
- Ingredients are listed in quantity from the highest to lowest amount under the nutrition label. If you don’t know what certain foods are, try googling them (or ask me!). You may be surprised to find that some of the same chemicals that are made to make candles or used in a car’s anti-freeze fluid are in the very things on our plates. YUM. Hungry yet?
- I try to stick to a shorter list of ingredients and always do a scan of the first three ingredients listed. If these three ingredients are real food, and words I can actually read, I will put it in my grocery cart.
OK, with that said, let’s get into it! :)
1. The first thing you want to do when you read a food label is note the serving size.
Many times, we purchase something thinking the label on the back complies to the entire container or box. This is often NOT the case at all. So it is important to read the serving sizes and to take that into consideration.
If you have a Lenny and Larry’s cookie for example, there are two servings in a single cookie. If you eat the whole cookie, you must multiply everything on the nutrition label by two.
2. The next thing you should look at is the calories.
Calories give us an estimated amount of energy from the given food in one serving. The FDA estimates that the average American should be eating 2000 calories a day. (This number actually depends on your age, sex, activity level and goals, more on this later). It is important to take that into consideration as well as the number of servings that you eat. Knowing how many calories you are taking in throughout the day is important especially if you want to lose weight. Adjusting the amount of calories to the serving sizes which you eat is crucial to getting accurate results.
Did you know: It only takes about 3500 extra calories to eat in a given week in order to gain one pound of fat. So If you are a sedentary person with a small frame and poor genetics, not factoring in those 2-3 extra servings you have at dinner 4 out of the 7 nights in a week could easily allow you to put on anywhere from 10 - 20 pounds in a given year!!
3. The next thing I like to encourage people to do is look at your macronutrients.
What are macronutrients?
We need all of these in order for our bodies to run at their most optimal levels.
However, fats are the macronutrient that we need the least amount of because fats are calorically the most dense. In other words, the serving size is small compared to the amount of calories that is in them.
When we read food labels, most break down fats as monounsaturated, trans, and saturated. This can be confusing. What you should aim to do is eat foods with little trans fat and saturated fat, and try to stick with foods with only monounsaturated fats.
Foods like avocado, extra virgin olive oils, coconut oils, and nut butters are all high in monounsaturated fats, but you should still be mindful of the serving sizes.
4. The next thing to note is your micronutrients.
What is a micronutrient?
When reading micronutrients on nutrition labels, look for high (in fact, the higher the better) fiber, vitamin (B, C, D, E, K), calcium, folic acid and iron levels.
I also recommend to eat as much micronutrients from real foods as you can. Foods like peppers, broccoli, spinach, eggs, oranges, and other fruits, veggies are great examples of natural micronutrients.
5. What is the confusing column with all the percentages? That is called The % Daily Value.
This is the column and the part of most nutrient labels I pay the least amount of attention to. The reason for this is because these numbers are going to vary depending on each individual eating the item. They may serve as somewhat of a general marker though.
What you should know:
“The % Daily Value (%DV) shows how much of a nutrient is in one serving of the food. The %DV column doesn’t add up to 100%. Instead, the %DV is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in one serving of the food” (FDA website, 2017).
If you are stressed out about reading the percentages because you don’t quite get it, remember to:
- Keep the cholesterol, sugar and sodium generally low
- Focus on your calories, macronutrients and ingredients
- Keep processed foods to a minimal
6. There are footnotes on the back of (some) labels such as this one (taken straight from the FDA website:
It tells us the average amount of certain nutrients that we should be getting based on the hypothetical 2000 a day calorie diet. This recommendation suggests that one should not eat more than 65-80g of fat a day based on this 2000-2500 calorie a day diet. Carbs are between 300-375g per day.
In my opinion, this is WAY too high especially for most Americans who live a rather sedentary lifestyle.
So here are my final suggestions
- Always note the serving size in any package of food you buy. Stick to that serving size!
- Pay attention to the calories. If your label has 20g of fat, 50g of carbs and very little protein, avoid it! Each meal should reflect all macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) and have a good balance. Think Protein 40%, Carbs 40% and fats 20%.
- Try to eat at least 1g of protein for every pound that you weigh. (i.e, if you weigh 150 pounds, try to eat 150g of protein). Eating enough protein will keep you fuller longer and help build and sustain muscle in the body.
- Keep in mind the less active you are, the less carbs you need. (when carbs do not get used, they eventually get stored as fat).
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible and pay attention to the ingredients list. If you can’t pronounce it- don’t eat it!
Oh one more thing - GET MOVING!