Understanding Nutrition Labels for Healthy Weight Loss
How many of you are guilty of flipping over a box only to glance at the number of calories or fat on the nutrition label? Don’t worry, I get it. We’ve been so conditioned to focus on a couple of pieces of information that we’re missing the big picture. There’s so much more you should be evaluating, whether you’re starting a new weight loss goal or simply ready to begin your new healthy lifestyle. Let’s look at some tips that will help you identify healthy choices by understanding how to understand nutrition labels.
A Quick Guide to Your Serving Size
To be able to accurately compare the nutritional value of certain foods, you will want to check out the serving size information. Serving sizes are most commonly listed in cups or pieces, then offer the number of grams. The serving size portion is particularly useful in helping you determine the number of calories and additional nutrients you will be consuming. You’ll want to pay close attention to how many servings come in the package as well as the nutritional value per serving. Do these numbers fit within your daily health goals? Will you get enough to eat from the serving size listed? If not, how many servings will you likely need or want, and where does that put your caloric intake? Be careful – it can add up quickly!
More Than Just Counting Calories
Each label will provide you with calorie information by measuring the amount of energy each serving has to give. The calorie section, as well as calories from fat, will help you manage your weight loss goals and keep you on track. Don’t forget, these calories are determined per serving, so make sure you are accounting for all calories consumed if you’re eating or drinking more than a single serving.
The FDA provides a general calorie guideline based on a daily caloric intake of 2,000:
- Low-calorie intake: 40 calories or less
- Moderate calorie intake: 100 calories
- High-calorie intake: over 400 calories
Knowing Your Nutrients
You’ll find the nutrients portion of the nutrition label is divided into two groups. Understanding this section will help you make more informed decisions, keep you healthy, and help you reach those weight loss goals.
The first group of nutrients listed on the nutrition label (found highlighted in yellow) are a list of nutrients you want to limit in your daily diet. Nutrients in this section consist of:
- Saturated fat
- Trans fat
These particular nutrients can increase your risk of various health issues when eaten in excess. Limiting them is in your body’s best interest. Letting this information guide your decisions will help you reach your weight loss goals while decreasing the likelihood of heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers and chronic diseases. The amount of cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat, in particular, should be kept very low.
The second group of nutrients (found highlighted in blue) are those that are typically not consumed enough in American diets. In this list, you'll find essential nutrients, such as:
- Dietary fiber
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
Consuming the right amounts of these nutrients can significantly improve your overall health, while also helping reduce your risk of various health issues.
The footnote found at the very bottom each nutrition label is required and usually based off of a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. The percent daily values are a recommendation, and your daily values should be based on your calorie intake needs. This portion of the nutrition label contains valuable dietary advice and will be the same from label to label. These daily values (DV) are recommendations provided by public health experts.
Getting to Know the Percent Daily Value (%DV)
You will want to keep in mind that the percent daily values are recommendations based on the daily values for essential nutrients with a 2,000 calorie diet. Using the percent daily value as a guide can help you determine if you are consuming more or less than 2,000 calories. This information also helps you keep track of your serving sizes and their nutrient value. Don’t overthink this portion of the label; it’s actually rather simple to use.
Using a 0 to 100 percent DV scale, you’ll be able to quickly tell the percentage of each nutrient you are getting from a particular food or drink. Don’t expect this column to add up vertically. These are simply based off of each nutrient’s daily requirement value. This allows you to more easily track which nutrients you may need to consume more of during the day. Keep in mind that 5% DV or less is considered low while 20% DV and up is considered high. This guide applies to both nutrient sections on the nutrition label. Don’t forget these figures are based on one serving size, so remember to do the math if you plan to have more than one portion.
The percent daily value also comes in handy when you want to compare similar products to make the healthiest choice. As long as the serving sizes are the same or very similar, you’ll be able to spot foods that may be higher or lower in each nutrient. Taking the time to evaluate these figures will help you select the items that support your weight loss goals and healthy lifestyle.
Nutrient Content Claim
One tip that will help you quickly determine if foods are right for your healthy weight loss plan is to evaluate the nutrient content claim. Use this section to understand if a product claims to be low-sodium or high in fiber. For instance, if you want to compare a non-fat product with a reduced-fat product, the percent daily value or total fat can easily be compared using the nutrition label. You’ll be able to use this method when comparing various claims that a food is:
Items for babies and children younger than age two have their own specific set of regulations.
What Are Dietary Trade-Offs?
You will also be able to use percent daily value to help you decide on necessary trade-offs to make during the day. This allows you to take more control over the foods you eat without having to sacrifice the foods you love. I bet that just put a smile on your face. Using the percent daily value as a guide, a food high in one content area can then be traded-off with another food low in that same area. So eating that salty pretzel might fit within your weight loss plan if you choose unsalted crackers for your next snack to make up for it. Just be strict about keeping all your total amounts under the 100% DV.
Why Can’t I find a Percent Daily Value?
You may have noticed that sugar, protein, and trans fat do not provide a percent daily value on nutrition labels. These items aren’t required by the FDA to have a listed %DV since specific guidelines haven’t been established for them.
Fun Facts You’ll Remember
Now that you have a better understanding of how and why you should be looking at the entire nutrition label, let’s take a look at a few ground rules to consider for your healthy weight loss goals:
- “First is the worst”- I know, I know, but I guarantee you won’t forget this one! Since ingredients are listed in order of their quantity or weight, you'll want to pay particular attention to the first item listed. Let's take sugar for example. If it's listed first, it's not likely the best choice to support your healthy weight loss goals. A good rule of thumb is to read through the first ten ingredients listed. If they don’t seem to fit your health goals, put it back.
- “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it” (Wise words from Tosca Reno) - If an ingredient is too hard for you to pronounce, it’s probably an artificial sweetener or preservative that you don’t need. Why load your body with ingredients that offer you no health benefits? Just pass.
- Limit your sugar intake – Well this should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. When it comes to added sugar, it’s best to keep your grams per serving under ten.
- Beware of the -ose ingredients - If it ends in -ose, beware! It’s a sugar. Would you believe there are over 100 possible names for sugar used on nutrition labels? Don’t be fooled by the fancy words and be on the lookout for those sneaky -ose endings. Your body will thank you for it in the form of weight loss and good health. The most commonly seen are fructose, glucose, lactose, and sucrose. You may also want to scan your nutrition label for words such as syrup, cane, and nectar.
- Beware of 0g trans fat – Just because it’s labeled 0g trans fat doesn't mean it can't clog your arteries. The FDA allows products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to list themselves as 0 grams trans fat. If you’re sticking to a healthy lifestyle or weight loss program, keep in mind that 2 grams are the most you want to consume on a given day. So, if you’re eating an item that claims to have no trans fat but actually has up to 0.49 grams per serving, you’re not doing your body any favors. Quick tip: take a quick scan of the ingredient list and look for partially hydrogenated oil. If you see it listed, it’s probably not the snack for you.
- The low-fat lie - It’s wise to take a deeper look at the nutrition labels of low-fat and non-fat food. Just remember, they remove one ingredient that tends to give it its yummy flavor and typically replace it with a ton of salt, sugar, or artificial flavorings. Always check your ingredient list. Believe it or not, many times you’re better off buying the original, full-fat version.
- Fill up on fiber - When you’re looking for fiber content, you’ll also want to check the nutrition label for sugar content. It’s usually recommended to try to eat an equal amount of fiber and sugar. Fiber is what helps slow down the digestion of sugar you put into your body. Your blood glucose level will stabilize, providing you with the same energy levels. In other words, you won’t be experiencing hunger pains within 30 minutes of eating.
- Reduce that salt intake - Consuming more than 1,000 mg of salt per serving, or over 2,300 mg of sodium per day, puts you at high risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and heart health issues. It’s just not worth it. Try to aim for less than 500 mg of sodium per meal while making it a habit to drink lots of water with your saltier meals.
- Knowing your fat facts - To achieve the best weight loss results and maintain a healthy lifestyle, be very selective with the fat you include in your daily intake. Saturated fats should be limited, mono-unsaturated fats should be increased, while trans fat should really be left alone. Although there are “good” fats, all fat can trigger inflammation and cholesterol level changes. And while omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are anti-inflammatory and promote a healthy heart, omega-6 polyunsaturated fat will store fat and cause inflammation.
- Beware of the sugar tale – Unfortunately, reaching for those “other” sugar packets isn’t always as good as it sounds. Many times, you’ll see claims of “zero sugar” or “no artificial sweeteners,” when in reality it usually contains sugar alcohol or “natural” sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit extract. And beware of "sugar-free” claims on nutrition labels as well. Many times, it’s a marketing tactic and only refers to refined sugars. This allows companies to continue using syrup or various natural sweeteners like honey or molasses.