How to Read Food Labels

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Food labels provide us with the information we need to make better choices. I remember when fast food chains were required to make nutritional information easily available and the first time I saw what was in my favorite nuggets, I was in shock. Despite the fact that I didn’t really know how to read food labels back then, I couldn’t believe what I had been eating all those years. Now that I’m far more educated about my nutrition, it’s no mystery why I gained so much weight.

As I was writing this, I decided to look up those nuggets again and see if it was as bad as I remember. When I googled it, I came across a site called calorieking.com. This site not only gave me the nutritional information of the nuggets but gave me suggestions on what to do to burn it off.

The first nutrition label that came up didn’t seem as bad as I remembered it to be. It wasn’t great but not shocking. It showed only 180 calories. Then I saw that the serving size was 4 nuggets. That was not my “usual” back then...I always got 20 nuggets, plus fries and a flavored iced tea. I adjusted the serving size and there was my shock value.

fast food food labels
The nutrition facts for 20 nuggets at a popular fast food restaurant. Click to enlarge.

Take a look at the label to the right. These nuggets have over half of the amount of fat, sodium, and cholesterol that I should have in a day. And this doesn’t include the fries or syrup-flavored iced tea! I may not have known exactly how to use the information on a food label but I had heard everywhere that you should eat 2000 calories per day or 1500 to lose weight...900 calories for the protein portion of my meal was not okay.

PBFit Food LabelLet’s break down a nutrition label and go over what to do with the information. I’ve added a photo of a food label from my chocolate PBFit powdered peanut butter to use as an example.

Serving Size

At the top of the label, you will see the serving size in an easy-to-understand unit of measurement, such as cups, pieces, tablespoons, etc. Below that you will see how many servings are in the package. In this case, the serving size is 2 tablespoons and there are 35 servings in the canister. This serving size is comparable to other kinds/brands of peanut butter, making it easy to directly compare them.

So, if you are a big fan of peanut butter, you should have a good idea of how much you use. For example, every day at work I have an apple with peanut butter as my morning snack. I know that if I use 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, I’ll run out before the apple is done. The better choice for me is the PBFit because I can have 4 tablespoons with my apple and still stay within my calories and grams of fat. Plus I get to take advantage of extra protein.

It’s important that you have a good idea of the serving size and what your habits are. If I had went with a natural creamy peanut butter, it would be 420 calories instead of 100 for the powdered PBFit.

Related: 9 Weight Loss Hacks You Can Implement Today

Calories

Now we can dive into the calories and calories from fat on the food label. Weight loss is all about consuming less calories than you burn. For years I only paid attention to the number of calories I was eating without paying much attention to the rest of the information. I guess it was something, right?

I didn’t know there were good calories and bad calories. The good calories also provide you with nutrients that your body needs, like lean protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates found in whole foods. You can also find them in quality meal replacement drinks/bars and supplements.

Bad calories or empty calories have no nutritional value. These are found in processed foods, sugar, foods with artificial ingredients, refined flours and unhealthy fats. You may notice that high-calorie foods tend to contain bad calories. When you eat these, not only are you not giving your body the nutrients it needs, but you may also be affecting the hormones that control weight loss, weight gain, mood, fat metabolism and hunger.

When you’re eating only bad calories, you could still gain weight even if you only ate 1000 calories per day. Good-calorie foods give you so much more, both in nutrition and quantity.

I once had a doctor ask me “Why do you drink your calories, wouldn’t you rather eat them?” It never really occurred to me that the raspberry iced tea I drank religiously was adding to my weight gain. Many times we see way too much sugar in drinks. Water, however, is the drink you can count on to never add to your calorie count. Plus, your body loves it!

A general rule for calories is 40 is too low, 100 is moderate and 400 and up is high. Make sure you choose your calories wisely and read the rest of the label.

Calculating Nutrient Needs on Food Labels

While food labels give you a percentage of the recommended daily amount, it’s based on a 2000 calorie diet. I think it’s safe to say if you’re here to learn how to lose weight, the numbers may be a little off. But that’s okay, I’m going to help make it easy for you.

Just beneath the calories, you’ll see Fat, Saturated Fat and Trans Fat. While we know having some fat in your diet is a good thing, we don’t want to overdo it. The same goes for cholesterol and sodium. Consuming excess amounts of these nutrients is bad for your health and can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers. So limit these in your diet.

The next block contains the rest of the macronutrients, carbohydrates (plus fiber and sugar) and protein. We need carbs as part of our diet to give us energy, however, we want to be sure there’s not too much sugar. If the food label you are looking at a high amount of carbs, make sure it has a good amount of protein to balance it out.

Let’s look at my apple and PBFit snack. My apple contains 14.1g of carbs, 2.4g dietary fiber and 10.6g of sugar, with under 1g of protein. Once I add the peanut butter, I now have a total of 26.1g of carbs, 8.4g of dietary fiber, 16.6g sugar and 8.3g protein.

While I typically try to have a better protein and carb balance, I don’t mind the carbs here since they are from fruit which provides so much more nutrients. Plus, I eat it in the beginning of the day where I will have plenty of time to utilize the energy and burn off anything excess.

Next we look at some micronutrients on food labels. We definitely want vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in our diets. The good thing is that our bodies do not require a very high amount. These are the nutrients that can improve your health and reduce the risk for some diseases. For example, you want calcium for strong bones.

The recommended daily value is typically based on 2000 (see footnote on each label). I know it can be difficult to do some quick math at the store to see if you’re hitting your recommended percentages. A quick quide to figure out your daily value on a label is 5% or less is low and 20% or more is high.

Another good rule of thumb is to shop on the outside of the supermarket and avoid processed foods in the middle. These “outer” foods will have far more nutritional value.

How to Make it Easier

For years people dreaded counting calories because calculating all of this before a meal was taxing. Luckily, we are in the technology age and “there’s an app for that” now. Actually, there are several apps. I’ve tried many of them over the years and my favorite is My Fitness Pal from Under Armour. It helps me stay on track by making it so easy to record what I eat. I can scan food labels or search their massive directory of food. I can even put in my own recipes (or any from online) and get accurate calorie counts. I have logged in everyday for 550 days in a row (at the time of writing this). It’s so easy, give a shot...it’s free!

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