Eating smart means paying close attention to what you’re eating. Nutrition labels on food and drink items are an important but sometimes confusing resource for people who want to stick to a healthy diet.
But what do the numbers on nutrition labels actually mean? Which of the nutrient items really matter? And how do you use a nutrition label to make healthy eating and drinking decisions?
Here’s what you need to know.
What are food labels?
Food labels refer to any of the packaging that describes a food or drink item. They contain language that persuades you to buy the item, but they also contain the facts you need to make good health decisions.
What are nutrition facts?
On food labels, you will often find a mix of marketing messages and hard facts. It’s generally a good idea to ignore the fluff and go straight to the box labeled “Nutrition Facts.”
The Nutrition Facts box is a standard section that appears on all processed foods. It lists important information, such as the serving size, calories, fat content, carbohydrate content, protein content and more.
Starting from the top of the Nutrition Facts box, you’ll find a line that says “Serving Size.” Similar foods have the same serving size. This helps you compare foods more easily. The information about calories, fat, carbs, protein, etc. refers to the amount of that nutrient in the given serving size.
For instance, if a gallon of Vitamin D milk lists its serving size as 1 cup, and if the fat content is 8 grams, then that means there are 8 grams of fat per 1 cup of milk.
It’s important to be aware of how many servings you are consuming. If your glass is larger than 1 cup, you’ll consume more than 8 grams of fat.
Servings Per Container
Underneath the Serving Size item will be a line that says “Servings Per Container.” This item is designed to help you understand how many servings there are in a container.
For a gallon of Vitamin D milk with a serving size of 1 cup, the servings per container will say 16. In other words, there are 16 1-cup servings in that gallon jug.
The next major item in the Nutrition Facts box is the “Calories” listing. Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of a food or drink item.
For a gallon of Vitamin D milk, the calorie number may be around 150. That means there are 150 calories in each 1-cup serving. (Again, if you consume more than one serving, you’ll wind up consuming more than 150 calories.)
Keeping track of your calories is among the most important — if not, the most important — things you can do when you’re trying to lose weight.
When you’re trying to lose weight, you want to consume fewer calories than you burn every day. If you take in more calories than you use up, you’ll gain weight. Use the nutrition facts to make sure you don’t go over your daily limit of calories.
Under the nutrients section, the first item you’ll see is “Total Fat,” subdivided into “Saturated Fat” and “Trans Fat.” While fat gets a bad rap, there are numerous types of fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a good type of fat which are important for many of your bodily functions. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, nuts and leafy vegetables. If you were to look at the Nutrition Facts label on such food items, it would would likely show a higher Total Fat number.
So how do you know what food items with a high fat content are good and which you should avoid? Look at the Saturated Fat and Trans Fat lines. These are the two main types of potentially harmful dietary fat.
Saturated fat comes mainly from animal sources of food, and can raise your LDL cholesterol levels and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Trans fat is made from a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. It can also increase your LDL cholesterol levels and boost your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Try to stay away from foods with high saturated fat content (more than 2 grams) and any trans fat content.
Dietary cholesterol occurs in animal products, such as meat, milk, cheese, eggs and butter. It can contribute to heart disease. Stay under 200 mg per day if you are at risk for heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
After “Cholesterol” comes “Sodium.” Sodium is a mineral associated with salt. Salt, processed foods and most restaurant food contains a lot of sodium.
Because consuming high levels of sodium is linked to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke and heart and kidney disease, you should be sure to keep your sodium intake in check.
For healthy adults, the recommended max is 2,300 mg of sodium per day. If you have high blood pressure or are older than 51, don’t consume more than 1,500 mg per day.
Carbs are found in many foods in a variety of forms, such as sugars, fibers and starches. Eating the right kinds of carbs is essential to a good diet.
The right kinds of carbs are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. The sorts of carbs that deliver fewer nutrients and satisfaction (so that you wind up getting hungry and eating again sooner) are refined or processed foods, including white bread, pastries and sodas.
How do you know whether your carbs come from the right source? Jump to the Ingredients section, which is located near the Nutrition Facts box. There, words like “enriched” or “white” mean the item contains refined/processed grains, while words like “whole,” “rolled” or “cracked” show the item contains whole grains (the type you want).
Dr. Dirk recommends a low-carb diet for losing weight and keeping it off. Make sure the few carbs you do eat are nutritious whole grains.
The last nutrient above the vitamins and minerals is “Protein.” Protein is a vital nutrient that powers many chemical reactions that your body needs to perform in top condition.
Dr. Dirk recommends a high-protein diet for individuals trying to lose weight. Keep in mind, though, that foods with high protein content, such as meats, can come along with high saturated fat or cholesterol levels. That’s why it’s good to rely on lean protein sources, such as skinless chicken breast and salmon.
Vitamins and Minerals
The final section in the “Nutrition Facts” box contains information about vitamins and minerals. Specifically, it provides a percentage. That percentage indicates how much of your daily recommended intake a serving of a food/drink item fulfills.
For example, a 1-cup serving of Vitamin D milk provides 30 percent of your daily recommended calcium intake.
Eating abundant vitamins and minerals is crucial to your health. Try to make sure you get enough vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
Food labels can be informative and helpful if used correctly. Remember to use the numbers to make good health decisions. Along with regular physical activity, eating a good diet is the key to losing weight and living a healthy life.