Insider Tips on How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

January 14, 2013 | Kait Fortunato

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The nutrition facts label is a wonderful tool. It allows you to take ownership of your food choices. However, these labels often have a lot of numbers, categories and measurements that can be confusing. Parsing the entire label can be time-consuming, especially if you're trying to get in and out of the grocery store. Here are the things that I do and don't look at on a nutrition label, some of which you may find surprising.

I DO Look at the Serving Size

This is important to consider when determining how much of this food you're actually going to eating. Cereal is a great example. Sometimes the serving size is only a half to three-fourths of a cup, and I know this alone will not keep me full. Same goes for snacks. Try to pick food items that give you a big nutritional bang for your buck, a nice nutrient-dense serving size to keep you full and satisfied.
 (Learn about portion sizes in relation to sports gear you're familiar with.)

I DON'T Look at Grams of Fat

I'm not too concerned with how much fat is in something; rather, I am concerned with the type of fat it is. For example, nuts and peanut butter (one of my favorite foods) have high amounts of fat, but they are omega-3, unsaturated fats, which are good for you. Unsaturated fats like omega-3's lower triglycerides, cholesterol and inflammation in the body and support the increase of the good (HDL) cholesterol. Other sources of unsaturated fats include avocados, olive oil, salmon and flax.

I DO Look at Grams of Saturated and Trans Fats

These are the types of fats that I choose to keep to a minimum. A healthy food option has zero grams of trans fat and less than five grams of saturated fat. Sources of these unhealthy fats include butter, mayonnaise, red meat and certain dairy products.

I DON'T Look the Daily Percentage (%) Value

The percent daily value is the percentage of a certain macro- or micro-nutrient you need each day based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This can be confusing, because individuals often need more or less calories depending on their age, gender, height, weight and activity level.

I DO Look at the Ingredients

Right below the nutrition label is one of the most important things to read: the ingredients list. I try my best to look for food items with whole ingredients, and I pay attention to how many ingredients are in a food item. I would much rather have a natural peanut butter or real ice cream as opposed to ones with artificial sweeteners and other preservatives. When choosing breads, I make sure the first ingredient is 100 percent whole wheat.

It's great if you have time to look at each food item carefully, but sometimes that is impractical. Here are some additional guidelines to consider when reading a food label in its entirety:

  • For each meal, try to keep sodium less than 500 milligrams
  • For a serving of food, have three to five grams of fiber
  • A low cholesterol food item should have less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol

Based on your specific nutrition and health goals, you may need to pay more attention to certain nutrition facts. The overall key is to try to choose whole foods that are satisfying and that you enjoy. It's also important to allow flexibility in your diet and choose a nice balance of healthy and great-tasting foods. (See 10 Nutrition Rules To Live By.)

(Want more insight on those tricky labels? See Nutrition Basics: Part 1.)

Kait Fortunato
- Kait Fortunato is a registered dietitian at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, a large and experienced nutrition practice in Maryland. She focuses on individualized nutritional recommendations...
Kait Fortunato
- Kait Fortunato is a registered dietitian at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, a large and experienced nutrition practice in Maryland. She focuses on individualized nutritional recommendations...
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