Make Sense of Nutrition Labels

Make Sense of Nutrition Labels


The Purpose

Food labels are designed to help us make decisions when it comes to the foods we eat. The purpose of the Nutrition Facts label is to provide information that can help us make food choices that meet our dietary needs or to compare the nutritional value of one food compared to another (which is highly recommended!).  Food labels have the ability to tell us a lot about food in terms of calories, sources of those calories (carbs, protein, fat) but they don’t suggest what foods to eat. That’s where comparing items becomes useful.

So, what’s the point?

Nutrition Facts labels provide nutrition information in an easy-to-read format, (with the proper instruction) but the label can be confusing with all of the information staring back at you.  My suggestion for beginners is don’t try to use all the information presented at once.  Instead, choose a target area (example total fat grams) and make a choice based on that information.  Once you’ve become comfortable with that, move on to the next line item. Eventually, you will want to look at “the big picture” and look at all the facts to make the most informed decision. Again, this is where comparing food labels is important.

Inside the Label

  1. Serving size

The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. This should always be the first thing you look at to make sure you are actually going to eat the serving size. If not, adjust the rest of the numbers accordingly. Similar serving sizes for similar foods help us to compare foods.  The amount of calories and nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts label is based on one serving.

  1. Check the calories

The second step when looking at the label is to check how many calories the serving provides.  Remember, calories give us energy and influence our weight, whether your goal is weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain.  The total amount of calories per serving will come from the 3 different sources: Total Carbohydrate, Protein, and Total Fat.  All three sources are measured in grams, each bringing a certain amount of calories per gram.  For instance, each gram of fat in the food will account for 9 calories to the foods total calories per serving.  Each gram of carbohydrate and protein will both account for 4 calories each to the foods total calories per serving.

Best recommendation when looking at calories is to ask yourself, “does it make sense for what it is?” For example, if you are trying to eat 2,000 calories per day spaced over 5 meals, that’s 400 calories per meal. If the bread on your sandwich is 300 calories and that’s not including the meat, the bread is too high in calories- find a lower calorie bread.

  1. Nutrients

The next section of the nutrition facts label consists of specific grams of carbohydrate, protein, fat, as well as vitamins and minerals that make up our food choices.

Total Fat is made up of 4 types of fat: monounsaturated & polyunsaturated (both good fats) and saturated & Trans fats (both bad fats). Sometimes poly & monounsaturated fats are not listed. However, if Total Fat is 12g, Saturated fat is 3g and Trans fat is 3g then 6g of those total 12g is coming from good sources. Conversely, 6g are coming from bad sources. You want more of your fat to come from good fats rather than bad fats.

Sodium and Cholesterolunless you have high blood pressure, I would suggest looking at the percentages to the right. Aim for less than 20% of sodium for each food you eat. Dietary Cholesterol does not affect your cholesterol in your body as originally thought. It is still wise to not eat over 100% per food but it’s not as imperative to keep this low as once thought.

Total Carbohydrates is made up of naturally occurring carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber and Sugars. The number of carbohydrates needed in a meal is highly dependent on the person and their goals. We recommend finding bready type foods that are high in fiber (>3 g) and low in sugar (<10g).

Protein 1 oz of meat=7-9g of protein. Typically, a meal should consist of 3 oz meat (or vegetarian sources of protein)- 3×7= 21g. If you are buying chicken sausage for example, and it only contains 10g protein but 50% sodium for one sausage then I would suggest finding something else. The reason? It’s too low in protein and too high in sodium.

Other Nutrients

Nutrients to get more of include: fiber, all vitamins and minerals.  Eating enough of these nutrients is important for health and can decrease the chance of getting some diseases.  Generally speaking, the more vitamins and minerals, the more nutrient dense the food is.

The reality is that the amounts and needs of each of these nutrients is based on the individual.  Seeking the help of a registered dietitian at Elite Nutrition can bridge the gap between confusion and achieving a healthy state of life. Remember, the nutrition facts label is meant to serve as a guide in order to help you make healthier food choices for your individualized nutrition plan. To learn more about reading food labels, ingredient lists and what foods are the best for your money, join us on one of our Grocery Store Tours coming up in April!

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Sean Vander Veer RD, LD

Elite Nutrition & Performance

(803) 200-2506





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