Most people want to make better choices when it comes to their diets, especially those who suffer from chronic diseases like congestive heart issues and diabetes. Learning how to read food labels to make those better choices can seem confusing at first, but if you know what to look for, labels can be your best guide in deciding which foods are best for your health.
March is National Nutrition Month, an annual nutrition education and information campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that spotlights the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. So, with the help of our friends at the National Institutes of Health and the FDA, here are some tips on how to make food labels your roadmap to healthier eating.
What Are Food Labels?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced in the U.S., as well as foods from foreign countries.
Under these regulations, ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least by weight. The FDA also dictates that eight major allergens must be listed if contained in the product’s ingredients. These allergens include milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans.
In addition to the product’s ingredients, food labels must also contain a table of nutrition facts. This table is designed to tell you everything from the sodium and carbohydrate content of a food to which vitamins are included.
When using the nutrition facts label as a guide, a quick and easy way to choose healthier foods is to opt for low amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. In terms of the Percent Daily Value (%DV) listed after each item, 5 percent or less is considered “low” while 20 percent or more is “high”. You should also look for higher amounts of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, fiber, and potassium.
Tips on Using Food Labels to Make Healthy Choices
The National Institutes of Health recommends looking at the serving size and servings per container, then comparing the total calories in similar products and choosing the lowest calorie option. Some easy tips to get started include:
- Understand servings and calories. The serving size and how many servings the package contains correlates with the calories of each serving. If you eat one serving, the label shows exactly what nutrients, sodium, and fats you’re eating. If you eat two servings, you get double that amount. The Percent Daily Value tells you how much of a nutrient is in one serving of food compared to the amount you need each day.
- Make your calories count. Not all calories are the same. Food labels tell you if the calories are coming from protein, carbohydrates, or fat. Depending on your diet, compare where those calories come from to make a healthy choice.
- Watch out for sugar! Try to find foods that are low in added sugars as sugar has few nutrients and is high in calories. Sugar can be listed under different names like fructose, glucose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and others.
- Keep sodium low, but potassium high. Eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium is recommended for reducing high blood pressure and other health issues, but it can be harder than you think. Processed foods like canned soups, canned vegetables, or pre-packaged meals are notorious for being high in sodium, so choose the low-sodium versions when possible. Foods that are high in potassium include bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, and oranges.
- The skinny on fats. When choosing foods with fats, keep saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol low to help reduce the risk of heart disease. Typically, your total fat intake should be between 20% to 35% of your calories.
How Reading Labels Can Help with Weight Loss
Now that you know how to read a nutrition label, you can easily figure out the calorie content of your favorite meals. For those wanting to drop pounds of fat, the calories and serving sizes are important.
Keep in mind, that if you eat two servings of a certain food, you will take in double the calories and double the %DV of the nutrients listed. For instance, if your favorite brand of mac and cheese lists a prepared box as six servings at 250 calories per serving, you’ll need to have 1/6th of the dish to keep it at 250 calories. If you have two servings, your calorie intake jumps to 500 and so on.
Luckily, most packaged foods have a nutrition facts label. Restaurants are also getting on board in listing nutrition information, so you can easily choose healthy options when eating out.
As always, check with your doctor before any lifestyle or diet change. A pharmacist can also help you choose supplements and vitamins that can complement a healthy diet.
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