Does reading Nutrition Facts labels leave your head spinning? Or, do you barely give them the time of day? Maybe you treat grocery shopping like brushing your teeth – something you do on autopilot. You reach for the brands you know, plop them into your cart, and away you go. No need to bother checking ingredient information, right?
Well … not so much.
Checking those Nutrition Facts is crucial because as they say, you can’t out-train a bad diet. You need to be consuming healthy nutrients throughout your day – and limiting the junk – to see your best results.
Sure, you can guess which foods, beverages, and supplements will do your body well, but why leave it up to chance when Nutrition Facts labels can do the work for you? All you need to do is learn how to decipher them. Don’t worry; with the guidance below, you’ll be reading these labels with ease in no time!
We’ve narrowed things down to these key areas …
1. Serving Information
The serving size on any food or beverage is shown in recognizable units, such as cups, pieces, tablespoons, etc. followed by the metric amount. For example, it might look like this:
Serving size = 1 Tbsp (21 g).
Note that this number isn’t necessarily what you should be eating, but what people typically consume. Also, note the number of servings per package. That party-size bag of zesty cheese nacho chips you love so much? It’s highly unlikely that the whole bag is just ONE serving. Instead, if it lists “10 servings per container” that means you should only eat 1/10 of the bag at a time. It’s a helpful way to keep your portions in check so that you don’t out-eat your last workout.
The calorie count is where most people’s eyes go first; it provides a measure of how much energy you’ll get from the product in question. Word to the wise: The calorie count is listed per serving, so it’s important to see this number in context to the overall pack. For example, if the label lists 300 calories and there are 4 servings in the package, that means you’ll be consuming a whopping 1,200 calories if you eat the whole thing at once.
As for how many calories you should consume per day, the general guide is 2,000 for healthy adults. However, your needs may vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level. Generally speaking, the more active you are, the more calories you’ll need to consume. Just don’t fall into the “I’ve-exercised-now-I-can-eat-a-house” trap, because that’s a hard one to come back from!
Now, for the caveat on calories.
You might hear people saying, “weight loss is all about calories in vs. calories out.” At a purely functional level, this is correct. However, the quality of what you consume is just as important as the quantity. Nutrient-dense items (versus those filled with empty calories) will keep you fuller throughout your day as well as promote better overall health. Think of it this way: A candy bar and a handful of almonds might have the same calorie count, but would you really consider the candy bar to be as nutritious?
This section comprises the bulk of the Nutrition Facts label. It lists the key ingredients found within, and the % Daily Value (%DV) for each item – i.e. the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the given food. (Note: 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, while 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high).
Reading the Nutrients section will help you make more informed dietary decisions based on your unique needs. Look for the nutrients you want to consume more of, as well as the ones you want to limit. You’ll never go wrong following this general advice:
• Nutrients to Get More Of – Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.
• Nutrients to Limit – Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars.
Unfortunately, Americans tend to consume more “nutrients to limit” than what’s ideal, which can lead to a host of health concerns such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments. Making a conscious effort to read Nutrition Facts labels can help keep you in safer territory.
This mighty macronutrient is worthy of a special callout because it’s crucial to your fitness results. People who exercise regularly and/or intensely have higher demands for dietary protein, and should be on the lookout for quality protein in adequate amounts. Case in point: Make sure the “high-protein” powder you’ve purchased has at least 20 grams of protein per serving. (Call us biased, but we’re partial to this one because it delivers on protein and taste.) Even if you wouldn’t call yourself a hardcore fitness enthusiast, protein is essential for healthy muscle growth and your body’s everyday function.
A word on ingredient listings.
Below the Nutrition Facts label, you’ll find a detailed list of product ingredients. These ingredients are listed by quantity – from highest to lowest amount. Don’t be surprised if the first ingredient listed on your favorite “healthy” fruit juice is SUGAR. The same goes for most barbecue sauces, salad dressings, and a variety of other kitchen staples. Also, when the ingredient list is longer than a 5-year-old’s Christmas wish list (line after line after line …) the product is likely highly processed. Rethink your purchase and opt for a more natural nutrition choice.
It’s worth your time to do some light reading.
Whether you avoided Nutrition Facts labels before out of habit, confusion, or busyness, now’s the time to start reading up on what you’re consuming. With the tips listed above, the mystery shrouding these labels should be all but dissipated.
Got the gist of things, but want extra support in understanding nutrition labels and cleaning up your diet? Schedule a FREE nutrition and well-being strategy call with one of our trained nutrition coaches today.
Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.