What’s the first thing you look for when you flip over a package and read the label? Ingredients? Calories? Grams of fat, or carbohydrates, or protein? Sugar content? If you’re one to seek out the calorie content, it’s possible that little black label brings up feelings of tension or anxiety. If you’ve never read a nutrition label in your life, you might be confused or indifferent as to what any of that information even signifies...who cares, right?
Understanding what’s in the food you eat is the first step to learning how your diet can impact your energy level, focus, and overall health. Reading nutrition labels can be simple and effective when you know what to look for.
So, where should you start? While this might go against natural instinct, it’s best to ignore the calorie content for now (or ever) and first read the ingredients. Regardless of calories or macronutrients, you most likely want to be eating real food and not sneaky processed ingredients. What is the product? Do you recognize its ingredients? If they’re weird, ambiguous, half-healthy-half-super-processed-sounding ingredients, it’s best to steer clear.
Ingredients are ordered by their quantity in the product, so make sure the first few ingredients—and ideally all of them—are whole foods. (If you’re unclear on what a whole food is, think—Is this food found in nature? Has it been processed or refined in any way that removes something healthful and/or adds something unhealthful?) If you find the list of ingredients satisfactory, then it’s time to take a look at the nutrition facts (or alternatively, just eat and enjoy). Here are some important pieces of info you’ll find on a nutritional label.
At the top, a nutrition label will tell you the serving size, the amount of servings per container, and how many calories are in each serving. The serving size is not a prescription for how much you should eat, but rather a measurement that the rest of the information is based on. Sometimes the serving sizes are much smaller than what an adult would normally consume, so some seemingly single serve packs actually contain 2-3 portions—in that case, double or triple the nutrition facts. The greatest value in understanding the number of calories consumed, is to learn how many calories it takes to feel satisfied. In our society that is something that most adults have unlearned, and it is very valuable to re-learn!
These are the three macronutrients that make up all food (minus alcohol). Plant foods are comprised of all three, usually with a majority of carbohydrates, while animal foods are mostly fat and protein. Some things to be aware of: grams of carbohydrate don’t differentiate between heathy whole carbs and refined simple carbohydrates, so total grams of carbohydrate is less significant than grams of sugar and dietary fiber (more on that later.)
Along those lines, total grams of fat is not as important as the type of fat. Watch out for saturated fats and especially trans fats (which are completely manmade and should be kept as close to zero as possible). Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered healthy fats and primarily come from plants such as avocados, olives, nuts, etc.
Protein is important, though you likely get enough without concern. The daily recommended intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram or .36 grams for pound, which works out to about 54 grams for a 150-pound person. Athletes, people attempting to build muscle may want to consume slightly more while still focusing on quality fats and carbs.
Checking a product’s sugar content is very important if you can see from the ingredients list that refined sugar has been added. Many products have sugar added to boost flavor (especially low-fat products), even savory foods of which you might not think to check the sugar content. More and more labels (and soon to be all, thanks to an FDA requirement) are differentiating between naturally occurring and added (refined) sugars. If added sugars are listed as 0g, rest assured that all of the sugars are natural. Naturally occurring sugars are found in nearly all plant foods and are not harmful as is refined sugar.
Dietary fiber is incredibly healthful, aids in satiety and digestion, promotes gut and bowel health and is even protective against some cancers. The RDA for fiber is around 25 grams, though there is evidence to support much higher recommendations. Most Americans are detrimentally low on fiber and you really can’t get too much (although do increase fiber gradually to avoid constipation, bloating and discomfort).
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and both are important. Technically both types are present in all plant foods, but insoluble fiber is predominant in grains, nuts, beans and some vegetables. It promotes bowel health and regularity. Soluble fiber is found mostly in fruits and vegetables, but also in some grains and beans. It creates as a gel when dissolved that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Both types of fiber help prevent against diabetes, improve satiety and help maintain healthy body weight. Loading up on fiber from a variety of plant foods will assure you’re getting all the healthy benefits of fiber.
Cholesterol is a component of cell membranes and is found exclusively in animal foods. Because the body can manufacture its own cholesterol, consuming dietary cholesterol is unnecessary. While there is some debate as to what extent dietary cholesterol worsens blood cholesterol and leads to heart disease, adults are advised to keep their daily intake below 300mg.
Both of these are essential minerals, although for obvious reasons sodium (an element of salt) is much more ubiquitous in a modern diet (honestly, who’s sprinkling potassium all over their food?). For that reason, and because high sodium leads to elevated blood pressure, it’s best to limit sodium and make sure you’re getting enough potassium. The RDA for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day and the RDA for potassium is 4,700 mg per day.
Toward the bottom, a nutrition label will state the percentage of your daily recommended intake for certain vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium, and vitamins C, D, and E. It’s always a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough of these in your diet, especially calcium and iron which can be lacking in an otherwise healthy diet, and are important for women in particular.
Reading nutrition labels doesn’t need to be intimidating or anxiety provoking. Making informed decisions about what you consume inspires agency over your own health, with healthful choices creating a snowball effect of energy and vitality and pride in the act of caring for yourself. So, next time you’re choosing a product to eat, don’t stop with a quick glance at the calories. Instead, use the ingredients and nutrition facts to understand what this food really is and whether you’d like to nourish yourself with it.