Dissecting Nutrition Labels

A new year. A new you. You’ve decided to start eating healthier in the hopes of shedding a few pounds. In order to do both, you’ve got to know what you’re eating. And for that, you’re going to need to dissect a nutrition label or two. Don’t worry, this won’t be like those dissections in the high school biology lab.

The USDA’s latest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” shows adult females need anywhere from 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day while adult males need from 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day.

A person needs to burn 3,500 calories a day to lose one pound a day. And you need anywhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day if you are doing your routine activities. That rationale means you need to starve yourself the whole day and exercise as much as possible to lose the remaining calories. This is practically not possible.

So, what’s a person to do? Here is a quick rundown for dissecting a food label that might prove helpful.

Serving size – Serving sizes and servings per package are arguably the most important part of a nutrition label, since all nutrition fact information is based on the particular serving size. Make sure you understand how many serving sizes or single portions are in the bag, box, or beverage. You may assume there is only one portion in the package when, in fact, there are two or more.

Think that bag of M&Ms with just 236 calories won’t be too bad to eat? Better look again. That calorie count is for one serving or roughly one-third of the bag. You’re barely going to whet your appetite with just that one serving or make yourself angry. Here’s a better way to break down those M&Ms you crave.

Linda Rankin, a registered dietitian at Idaho State University, shares her best food fact – M&Ms are really football fields. One M&M is approximately three calories and in order to burn off those three calories, you would need to walk or run the length of one football field or 100 yards. What about a peanut M&M? Rankins says you would need to walk or run the length of two football fields to burn the calories from one peanut M&M. For most, you might as well just suit up for the whole game!

That bag of chips or crackers? It’s not a single serving but really four servings. It’s going to take some willpower to eat just one. The same with a variety of drinks. Better check the serving size before you purchase a bottle of flavored tea, a soft drink, or a sports drink. Your safest bet is water.

Number of calories in one portion – Also note the number of calories in the whole package. If you are tracking calories, you need to have a running tabulation of calories consumed for each portion of food or drink. You also need to understand the calorie consequences if you decide to eat the whole package. While the whole package is appealing, your body won’t thank you later.

Calories. While caloric needs differ from person to person, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, each of your meals should be around 500 calories, with a couple of snacks around 250. If you’re dropping some pounds, then make your meals 350 to 400 calories and your snacks 100 to 200.

Fat. Make sure there are zero trans fats. These fats are considered the worst type of fat to eat, which is why they are usually found in our favorite foods – bakery products, chips, crackers, fried foods, margarine and pizza. Check to see how many saturated fats per serving are listed. You will typically find saturated fats in animal products like meats and dairy items, and also in processed food items that taste good.

Trans fats. These are the fats that increase your bad cholesterol which is what clogs and hardens your arteries and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Just remember, one gram of fat is equivalent to nine calories and run a rough estimate in your head. If it tastes good, it’s probably bad for you.

Cholesterol. Aim for a total of 300 milligrams per day. One large egg has about 186 milligrams of cholesterol, which is all in the yolk. However, the yolk is packed with iron, vitamin D, carotenoids and more, so it’s not totally a bad guy.

Sodium An easy guideline is 300 mgs or less per serving. Your goal is to aim for a maximum of 1,500 milligrams of sodium or salt per day. If you eat processed foods and frozen foods daily, you will struggle to stay under this goal. Baked goods, deli meats, and soups are also notoriously high in sodium. Too high salt levels can instigate hypertension and lead to heart disease. Used to enhance flavor, you can even find high levels of sodium in items like breakfast cereals. Less than 120 mg per serving is low while anything above 400 mg is considered high.

Sugar. Until added sugars are clearly highlighted, you do need to look at both carbohydrates and sugar separately on the label. You also need to examine the ingredients list to see how many times sugar is mentioned. To do this properly, get to know all the names of sugar.

  • Fruits are a great option to satisfy your sugar cravings. They’re high in vitamin C, potassium, antioxidants, and fiber, making it easier to boost your nutrient intake.
  • Steer clear of too much added sugar.You’ll find the sweet stuff where you least expect it, in foods like beef jerky and tomato soup. Keep it to less than five grams per serving, and put back any items that have 15 grams or more of total sugar. There is one exception: If the sugar is coming from actual fresh fruit (not fruit juice or dried fruit) those calories aren’t completely empty as they are delivering fiber and nutrients.

Protein. A percentage daily value for protein is not required on the label. Eat moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, plus beans and peas, nuts, seeds and soy products.

Carbohydrates. There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber. Eat whole-grain breads, cereals, rice, and pasta plus fruits and vegetables.

Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities or allergies, those who need to avoid certain ingredients due to religious reasons, or people who prefer a vegetarian eating style.

So, what’s a person to do?

Start with the ingredient list. “If the list is short — five ingredients or less — and made up of just a few foods you can easily recognize, then chances are it’s a wholesome choice,” said Tracy Morris, the in-house dietitian at Fitbit. “If, on the other hand, it’s filled with chemicals, various kinds of added sugars, saturated fats, and salt, it’s probably best to leave the item on the shelf.” Another way to think about it: Would you be able to whip this up in your kitchen at home using the ingredients listed? If not, skip it. Also, ingredients are listed from largest amount to smallest, so ideally you don’t want added sugar or saturated fat appearing in the top three.

Focus on fat. This part of the food label is tricky: There are lines for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. While it’s good to keep an eye on total fat, the second two are more important. That’s because foods high in healthy fats, like salmon, avocado, and nuts, shouldn’t be ruled out. You want the trans fats to be zero and the saturated fat to be as low as possible — anything below five percent daily value per serving is ideal, above 20 percent is too high.

Fill up on fiber and protein. “The fiber content is most important if you’re looking at a grain product, like cereal, bread, or crackers,” said Morris. “That’s because if it’s made with whole grains, it will generally be high in fiber.” What’s the goal? Anything above five grams of fiber per serving is considered high (again, go for more than 20 percent of your daily value). As for protein, good goals are at least 10 grams for a snack and 25 grams for lunch or dinner to make sure the food keeps you full.

Eating healthy may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Using common sense and eating things in their natural state will prove to be your best, and safest bet. And some exercise won’t hurt, either. Forrest General has a variety of resources at your disposal to help you become a healthier person in 2023. See you at the football field!