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How to Read Food Labels

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Whether you’re trying to lose weight, improve a chronic condition or just eat healthier, keeping an eye on your intake will be critical to your success. Our appetites and preferences don’t always lead us to the healthiest choices, so it’s important to use data to determine which foods will help us meet our goals.

Fortunately, virtually every food item you can find in a grocery store is thoroughly labeled with the how-to-read-food-labelsinformation you need to make good choices. With a little know-how, you can quickly scan food labels to fill your cart with items that taste great and improve your health. Here are a few pointers on reading food labels as you shop and prepare meals.

Calories Count

Calories aren’t the only piece of the nutrition puzzle, but if you’re trying to lose weight, they are the most important. Simply put, you’ll only lose weight if you consume fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll gain weight if you do the opposite. A wide variety of diets work for weight loss, but the common factor among all of them is that they help people control their calories.

Most packages prominently display the calories per serving near the top of the food label, often in a larger font. If you scan the labels of nuts, granola and other so-called “diet” foods, you may be surprised at the large number of calories many of them contain.

On the other hand, you might be surprised to find out how few calories are in some of your favorite foods. Most vegetables are extremely low in calories compared to their volume and weight, as are fruits, beans and other high-fiber foods. Overall, any food that offers lots of flavor and satiety along with a lower calorie count is going to help with weight management.

Understanding Serving Sizes

A label’s calorie count is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. You’ll get that number of calories in every serving of a food, and the exact serving size is displayed at the top of label. Oftentimes, those recommended serving sizes are quite a bit different from people’s preferred portions. If you’re not sure how your own servings match up, spend a few days using a food scale or measuring cups to portion your food.

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

Most of the prominent nutrients on a food label–those displayed in bold, in the section under the calorie count – are known as macronutrients. These include fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Fats and carbs are usually subdivided into additional categories, such as saturated fats, trans fats, fiber and sugar. These are the nutrients that provide your body with energy, and they contribute to the calorie count.

On the other hand, micronutrients do not contain any meaningful amounts of energy (calories). That doesn’t mean they’re not important, though! These nutrients include the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function properly, such as iron, B-vitamins and calcium. Modern foods tend to be fortified with additional micronutrients, but it’s still important to make sure you’re covering your bases.

Percent Daily Values

So, how much of each of these macro- and micronutrients do you need? The USDA has established recommended daily amounts for each, and the proportions of those amounts are listed on the right-hand column of the label as “% daily value.” If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll want to look for lower percentages for fats and carbohydrates and high percentages for vitamins and minerals. This ensures you’re meeting your nutritional needs without consuming too many calories.

However, those percentages are usually based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, which isn’t the right amount for everyone. You may need to eat less if you’re sedentary, and you’ll probably need more if you’re younger or highly active.

Eye on Ingredients

For most people, eating the right amounts of calories, macronutrients and micronutrients is sufficient to lose weight and improve health markers. For people with food allergies, intolerances or certain chronic conditions, however, it’s just as important to keep an eye on the ingredients label.

Located at the bottom of the label, the ingredients section is a comprehensive list of the foods and additives within a given product. They’re listed in order by weight, with the first ingredient usually comprising the majority of the food. For instance, the first ingredient on almost any cereal box will be wheat, oats, rice or corn.

Personalizing Your Plan

Even with some basic information at hand, you may still wonder which foods are right for you. How can you eat to stay full as you lose weight? What foods are best for a person with diabetes? Which foods will help you improve the deficiencies your doctor has identified through blood tests? For help in reaching your health and wellness goals, contact your primary care physician for a referral for outpatient nutrition counseling by one of our Fisher-Titus dietitians.

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