How to Read Nutrition Labels

How to Read Nutrition Labels
By Emily Artner, MS, RD, LD, Expert Dietitian

Nutrition labels can be confusing or intimidating for many people. Should I count calories? What’s the difference between the various fats listed? Am I going to hit my protein goal? What on earth do those long items in the ingredients list mean?

I’m here to help you navigate the nutrition label once and for all. The first rule is to always read top-down, examining items in this order:

  1. Serving Size
  2. Calories
  3. Fat
  4. Carbohydrates
  5. Protein
  6. Ingredients.
nutrition labels

Okay, but what do these six different things mean? What can we learn from reading them?

1. Serving size is critical.

The whole nutrition label centers around this number. The serving size indicates the amount of food they are giving you information for. Take a look at the example above. One serving equals one biscuit, and there are 12 servings (biscuits) in this package.

2. Not all calories are created equal.

People tend to count calories, but don’t understand that calories can come from three different sources: fat, carbohydrates, and proteins. So before we toss a food aside because of the number of calories, we should continue down the label for more information.

3. There are three different types of fat.

Just as all calories are not created equal, neither are all fats. There are three categories of fats: the good (unsaturated), the bad (saturated fat), and the ugly (trans fat). Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Unsaturated Fat – This is the good fat; it is heart-healthy, lowers your bad cholesterol, and is an anti-inflammatory. It’s not always listed on nutrition labels, but it is easy to calculate. Simply subtract the saturated and trans fats from the total fat to figure out how many grams of unsaturated fat are in each serving.
  • Saturated Fat – Lowers good cholesterol and raises bad cholesterol.
  • Trans Fat – Avoid at all costs. Even if the product says 0 grams per serving, you should check the ingredients list to ensure partially hydrogenated oils is not listed. If it is, there is trans fat in that food.

4. Total carbohydrates can shed light on your nutrition goals.

Carbs are the main source of energy for the body. They can be found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. When looking at this part of the nutrition label, there are three goals you should have:

  • Carb goal – Choose carbs with 5 grams of fiber for every 15 grams of total carbohydrates.
  • Fiber goal – Consume 25-35 grams of fiber daily.
  • Sugar goal – Keep sugar under 5 grams for every 15 grams of total carbohydrates.

A word about sugar: with the current nutrition label, it’s difficult to differentiate between natural and added sugars. The new nutrition label in 2018 will distinguish the two, but until then you’ll need to watch your entire sugar intake. Eating too much sugar will lead to an excess intake of unhealthy calories.

5. Protein is essential for health.

Protein helps maintain our lean mass, build a strong immune system, and create healthy cells. Your protein goal should be spread throughout the day because our bodies cannot store protein the same way as other nutrients. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner should each have about 20-25 grams of protein, and snacks between meals should have between 10-15 grams each. The best sources of protein are found in foods like meats, eggs, fish, dairy, beans, and nuts.

6. The first five ingredients listed need to be healthy.

Most people don’t know this, but the ingredient list is sorted in descending order according to their weight in the food product. To ensure you are eating healthy and whole food, look at the first five ingredients. You should avoid foods with any of the following included in the first five items:

  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • High fructose corn syrup

Hopefully these navigation tricks will help you on your journey for a healthier and happier life. As always, if you would like a custom-tailored plan for your unique weight loss goals or if you would like formal guidance on nutrition, please use our website or call us at 513-791-9474 to schedule an appointment. I would love to help you look, feel, and live better!

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