Do you want to know how much I love my job? Last week, on my birthday, I chose to spend the day educating employees at a local Los Angeles organization all about deciphering those often confusing nutrition labels.
Lisa and I have noticed that people tend to get hung up on the “numbers” – things like sugar, fat, and fiber grams. But, when you focus on eating real food – unprocessed, unpackaged food – the majority of the time, the nutrition takes care of itself. That’s why we encourage our clients to focus on enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good-quality proteins and healthy fats in reasonable portions.
With that being said, packaged products have their place too. Finding the time and resources to fuel your body and satisfy your taste buds with fresh food straight off the farm and eloquently prepared in your kitchen is not always a practical reality.
Below I cover the items listed on a nutrition label and help you understand what they mean.
Check out the ingredient list first – it is usually located just below the Nutrition Facts panel. We like Michael Pollan’s food rule: it’s best to avoid ingredients if you can’t pronounce it or don’t recognize it. Ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight; meaning the ingredient that makes up most of the product is listed first.
Sugar: Products with high amounts of added sugar can offer a lot of empty calories, so try limiting these (more on sugar below).
Whole Grain: If a product is truly whole grain, the first ingredient listed must be whole grain.
Trans Fat: To be confident that your product has NO trans fat (the kind of fat most harmful to your heart), check the ingredient list and look for the words “partially hydrogenated.” If you see these words, the product has trans fat -- and we recommend you steer clear.
#2. Serving Size
The serving size is important as it identifies how much of the product is in an individual serving. Remember all the information listed below about calories, fat, etc. is the amount in one serving of the product.
Calories give us energy, but when our calorie intake exceeds our calorie expenditure, it can lead to weight gain. We also want you to keep in mind that not all calories are created equal. For example, 50 calories from an apple also provides us with nutrients, phytochemicals and fiber, whereas calories from candy or soda simply provides carbohydrates in the form of added sugar.
Nutrition experts are beginning to understand more and more that it is not the amount of fat in our diet that is of concern – is the type of fat we choose to eat. Saturated and trans fat, when consumed in excess, can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Try to limit your intake of these types of fat and instead, focus on eating healthier dietary fats such polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats can actually improve your cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Studies have found that dietary cholesterol found in animal products such as dairy products and meat can put your heart at risk for disease, too. Aim for less than 300mg of cholesterol per day if you are at high risk for cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
The American Dietary Guidelines recommends limiting our sodium intake to less than 2,000 mg per day – the average American is almost doubling that amount! One helpful tip in reducing your sodium intake is to choose mainly unprocessed foods. But, when buying a processed product, check the ingredients label. In order for a product to be considered “low sodium” it must have less than 140 mg of sodium per serving. Also beware that many low-fat products in the market often contain more sodium than their counterparts to make up for flavor loss.
#7. Total Carbohydrate
The total carbohydrate portion of a nutrition label can be especially helpful for those with diabetes, wanting to moderate and balance their carbohydrate intake throughout the day. By looking on the nutrition label, you can see exactly how many carbs are in one serving, which can help you choose appropriate products and plan your meals or snacks accordingly.
Fiber helps to reduce cholesterol, prevent diabetes, helps with weight management, and yes – keeps us regular! The average American consumes less than 14 grams of fiber per day while current recommendations suggest we have a daily fiber intake of about 25 – 35 grams day. Fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and is not typically found in animal and dairy products. “High fiber products,” those that have 5 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving, may help you get your daily recommended intake.
Sugar occurs naturally in some foods like fruits, milk, and other dairy products. Added sugars, on the other hand, are those that are added to food and beverage products during processing and production to improve taste. Having too much added sugar on a regular basis can be of concern as it can cause tooth decay, poor nutrition, and increased triglycerides. Products like cereal, yogurt, cookies, candy, and soda are often culprits of having a high amounts of added sugar. According to the American Heart Association, we should aim to keep our added sugar allotment to about 25g-35g per day; that translates to approximately 100 -150 calories.
Protein is an important part of our diets. The amount of recommended daily protein depends on your age and health. We recommend incorporating a good quality protein at each meal & snack. Protein helps to maintain a feeling of fullness and helps to keep you satisfied in-between your meal & snack time.