If you want to avoid consuming foods that will send your daily calorie count through the roof or lack any nutritional value, it’s smart to read nutrition labels before you buy. The fewer labels you have to read, the better. A great place to start is to eat and cook with more fresh fruits and veggies, because those foods don’t come with labels. When you do eat or prepare packaged foods, empower yourself with knowledge at the grocery store by understanding food labels with these tips.
Don’t get tricked. The calories listed show the amount of calories in one serving of food. Check the package, box or can for the total number of servings. A single package of food can contain four servings which means you have to multiply the calories per serving by four to get the total calories for that package.
More or less? In general, you want more dietary fiber, Vitamins A, C, D and E, Calcium and Iron. You want less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar of any kind and sodium. Saturated fat (in excess) and Trans fat raise cholesterol and can lead to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories. Cutting cholesterol to less than 200 milligrams a day can benefit anyone at risk of heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Research also shows that eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon) per day may reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Since older adults are more sensitive to sodium, eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.
Sweet on Sweets? It’s okay to indulge in a sugary treat once in a while, but you could be consuming more sugar than you think if you aren’t reading the labels. And for clarification, sugar is sugar is sugar. The human body can break down different carbohydrates and produce the same thing in your bloodstream: glucose. Different kinds of sugar are favored in different parts of the world and our country for that matter. But cane sugar, beet sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Agave Nectar, Brown Rice Syrup, Honey—all sugar! Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can eat one type of sugar in excess because it is more healthy. It isn’t. Also, make sure to check what you are drinking for added sugars too. Fruit juices, fruit smoothies from the smoothie bar and fancy coffee drinks can create major sugar overload in your body.
Get your daily value. Daily value represents the amount of each nutrient you need if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet per day. Since most people don’t get enough vitamin A, C, potassium, calcium and iron, look for 20% or more of dietary fiber in these categories.
Go low cal. It boils down to calories in vs. calories out to maintain your weight. High calories per serving often indicate that the food has a lot of fat or added sugars. Generally, 400 calories per serving is considered a high-calorie food, 100 calories per serving is moderate and 40 calories per serving is considered a low-calorie food.
Pay attention to what’s not being touted. Many food companies will tout the one good feature of the food you are about to buy and leave out the bad parts, unless you look closer. It’s one of those situations where you need to pay attention to what isn’t being said. Gorton proclaimed “no trans fat” on its beer batter crispy fish filets, but didn’t draw attention to the high saturated fat and sodium content. The FDA wasn’t so happy with that misleading claim. But you can do your own vetting of your food selections if you take time to read the label!
Beware of marketing speak. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, words such as enhance, support and maintain may sound good, but they don’t mean a lot. If it sounds like a health claim that sounds too good to be true, it just might be. Use common sense; when you see 24 packs of chocolate milk sitting on store shelves unrefrigerated, ask yourself, “Is that really milk?”
Now you’re a nutrition label expert. Bottom line, everything in moderation. Aim to eat more fresh, whole foods without labels. Eating foods made at home from fresh ingredients is not only healthier, but usually tastes better than packaged foods too. But eating packaged foods is inevitable and can be healthy, just be smart about your choices!