Weight Loss Wednesday: Decoding the Language of Nutrition Labels

At first glance, attempting to read the Nutrition Facts label on the back of a food item can seem worse than trying to decipher the diagram on a piece of Ikea furniture. However, with a little bit of explanation, you, too, can learn to decode the “language” of food labels and use them as the practical tools that they are.  Why are they useful? Simply said, learning how to read, and understand, food labels can help you manage your weight and control, and/or reduce health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Let’s break it down, shall we?

             1.             Serving Size (#1 on the sample label):      When reading a nutrition label, start at the top and work your way down. At the top of the label, you’ll find the serving size. Serving sizes are usually standardized across subtypes of foods, making it easy to compare similar foods. It also lets you know how many total servings are in a container.      2.             Calories & Calories From Fat (#2 on the sample label):      Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from eating a serving of the food. Make sure to pay attention to this number as the number of servings you eat influences the total number of calories you will be consuming. This number can be used to help you manage your weight. For example, since there are two total servings in the container, you would  double  the calories listed.  For example, our sample label has 250 calories per serving. Since there are two servings per package, 250 is the amount of calories that you’d consume if you ate half the box. Eat the whole box and double the calories, making it 500 total. 

 

 

1.      Serving Size (#1 on the sample label):

When reading a nutrition label, start at the top and work your way down. At the top of the label, you’ll find the serving size. Serving sizes are usually standardized across subtypes of foods, making it easy to compare similar foods. It also lets you know how many total servings are in a container.

2.      Calories & Calories From Fat (#2 on the sample label):

Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from eating a serving of the food. Make sure to pay attention to this number as the number of servings you eat influences the total number of calories you will be consuming. This number can be used to help you manage your weight. For example, since there are two total servings in the container, you would double the calories listed.  For example, our sample label has 250 calories per serving. Since there are two servings per package, 250 is the amount of calories that you’d consume if you ate half the box. Eat the whole box and double the calories, making it 500 total. 

1.      And 4. The Nutrients:

 Limit These

Under the nutrients section, you will see total fat, cholesterol and sodium (#3 in our example). In fact, that’s what you’ll see at the top on most nutrition labels, as these are the nutrients that most Americans eat enough of or even too much of.  As such, these are also the nutrients that you should limit, as consuming too much trans-fat, saturated fat and sodium can increase your risk for chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart failure and can even increase the likelihood of developing some cancers.  The take home message? Keep your intake of these things as low as possible for optimal health. 

Get Enough of These

Moving down on the label, you’ll see dietary fiber, as well as Vitamins A and C, calcium and iron (#4 in our example). Most Americans struggle to get enough of these in their diets.  Adequate intake of nutrients such as dietary fiber, iron and calcium is essential for optimal health and can reduce your risk for some diseases, like osteoporosis, heart disease and colon cancer. In addition, they promote healthy bowel function and promote healthy circulation. Tip: the nutrition label can also be a guide to help you get the nutrients that you need. 

5. and 6:     The Footnote:

 

footnote.gif

If you look to the bottom of the nutrition label, you will sometimes find a little box stating the Daily Values. These numbers are guidelines for how much of each listed nutrient you should consume in one day, based on some sample diets (#5 in our sample). 

   

 

 Looking over at the top right of the label, you will see the % daily value (#6 in the sample label). This gives you the percentage of your total intake of each listed nutrient that you will get from eating one serving of the food you are looking at. These percentages are often based on a reference value diet as listed in the footnote we talked about in # 5 (usually 2000 calories).

 What does this mean? For example, if you consume one serving of our sample food, you’ll be satisfying 18% of your total fat allowance. Subtract this number from 100 and you’ll get how much of your daily fat allowance you have left. 

Similarly, if you eat two servings, the total percentage of fat you’ll take in will double, leaving you less fat until you reach your recommended maximum of fat intake for the day. 

 

Still confused? Breathe. All it takes to become fluent in “Label-ese” is a little practice. If you’d like a little more instruction, use the links below for more information about the language of labels.

 

 

For More Information:

http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm#see2

http://www.nscsd.org/webpages/ahysick/files/nutrition%20label%20worksheet.pdf