When most people are looking to improve their health, they often latch on to the latest health or fitness trends without doing a lot of research. Some people look at getting calorie counting apps, shopping at health food stores, or joining a local crossfit or boot camp class. We aren’t discounting diet and exercise (because they are important!), but one of the best ways to quickly improve your health is by learning how to read nutrition labels.
Every packaged food product in the United States has to have a nutrition label. Knowing how to read the information on these labels could save your life, and ignoring this information could increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. These labels don’t contain complex scientific information or difficult mathematical equations. They are not that scary, and we are going to teach you how to decipher them in order to become a healthier person.
This information is always found at the top of the nutrition label. Be mindful of the serving size and the amount of servings per package. For instance, a bag of chips may have a serving size of 14 chips, but there are four servings in the package. Eating the whole package, then, increases your intake of every other item on the label.
Everything that is inside the black lines (calories, sugars, protein, sodium, fats, etc.) is representative of one serving. That is the most important thing to understand! If one serving has 200 calories, but there are 2.5 servings in the container, eating the whole container means that you consume 500 calories. It’s a clever marketing trick because people commonly overlook that the ingredients represent one serving.
There are several numbers and names that you must pay attention to on nutrition labels. A product that says it is 99% fat free should theoretically contain 1% fat. This is most often representative of the weight of the product. Fats are listed multiple ways, with multiple values, in one area on the label. This is confusing! Dressings, condiments, soups, or canned foods can all be diluted with water, which increases the weight but not the fat. Companies can sell a product that is 90% fat by diluting it, seasoning it, and marketing it as 98% fat free.
This isn’t to say that all fats are bad for you. Nuts and seeds, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and other plant-based foods contain beneficial, heart-healthy fats. On nutrition labels, you have to look out for and avoid trans fats and saturated fats, both of which can contribute to heart disease.
Cholesterol & Sodium
The goal should be to limit your consumption of both of these ingredients. Excessively consuming both of these can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Again, pay attention to the serving size and amount of servings per container, because you might be consuming 500 milligrams of sodium, when you think you are only consuming 150 milligrams.
Carbohydrates are the breads, grains, fibers, and sugars in foods. Dietary fiber is integral for a healthy digestive system and can keep you satiated between meals. You have to watch out for sugars because, like trans fats, they have been linked to a host of health problems. The types of carbohydrates should also be of major concern. Foods like breads, pastas, or chips are often low in fiber and high in carbohydrates. While these foods may not contain a lot of sugars, the carbohydrates will operate similarly in your bloodstream. They are simple carbs. You want to focus on complex carbs from foods like broccoli, pears, carrots, sweet potatoes, bananas, quinoa, buckwheat, whole oats, and apples.
Vitamins & Minerals
Truth be told, you shouldn’t pay any attention to the vitamins in a packaged food product. These numbers are notoriously low and you should focus on fresh fruits and vegetables to obtain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
On the right side of the nutrition label, you will notice different percentage values that correlate to the fats, sodium, sugars, and protein. The percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie per day diet. Keep in mind that if there are 2.5 servings in a certain food and one serving satisfies 20% of your daily sodium intake, you could be at 50% by just eating one snack.
Now you know how to read nutrition labels! There’s no need to be afraid, and there’s no reason to think something is healthy when you can clearly read that it isn’t. Lastly, don’t forget to read the actual ingredients. Remember that the ingredients are listed in order of the amount. If high fructose corn syrup is first on the list, you can bank on that food product being high in calories with minimal nutritional value, if any. Additionally, the longer the ingredient list, the worse the food is for you. While this information is beneficial for your health, the best way to remain healthy is to focus on foods that don’t have nutrition labels. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains can help you remain on the healthy path.