4 Simple Steps for Reading Nutrition Labels
Pretty much every food item you buy will have a nutrition label. You know that there’s important information on there, but there’s actually so much information that it can be overwhelming. Where to start in terms of getting the most useful information from these labels?
I’ve broken it down into 4 simple steps, so you can size up a food quickly from the nutrition label. Start with serving size, then look at Calories, Macronutrients, and finally Micronutrients. I’ll explain each of these steps as we go, along with a diagram showing where to find it on an FDA sample nutrition label. Ready?
Sizing up your serving is the first and most important step to reading a nutrition label. By looking at how much of the food in question counts as a serving, you can get a much better sense of the nutritional value of that food.
You might take a look at a label, and see that your favorite type of potato chip only has 120 calories. But then you notice the serving size says that a serving is only 10 chips. There’s no way you’d only eat 10!
Looking at sauces, dressings, and the like can be just as deceptive. These types of foods generally have a small serving size of 1 or 2 tablespoons. You’re likely to have much more than that when you actually go to eat the item. You might also find that a serving size is exactly the amount you’d want to eat, but you never know until you check what the serving size is.
If there’s one number to rely on to get a sense of how “healthy” a particular item of food is, I’d rely on Calories. Calories measure the amount of energy stored in your food, and how much will be released into your body. Obviously, you need a certain amount of calories to survive day to day, but eating more calories than you need can quickly accumulate fat on your body and over a long period of time can contribute to obesity, heart disease, and the like.
To see the impact of the Calories in what you’re eating, you first need to figure out how many calories you need. For most people, this will range from between 1200-2200 Calories per day. Depending on your goals, whether it’s weight loss or muscle gain, you’ll need to adjust your daily Calorie intake.
If you’re looking to lose weight, check out the link below to a Calorie Calculator that will tell you how many Calories you should aim to eat each day.
To get a little more detailed in terms of evaluating nutrition labels, the next step to examine is your macronutrients, or macros, for short. There are three macronutrients, and I’m sure you’ve heard of all of them.
Carbohydrates – These are the nutrients in food that your body will break down into glucose, or sugar, allowing your body to have enough energy to function. The amount of carbohydrates you eat will affect the amount of sugar circulating throughout your body. Getting the right amount is key to feeling good, while having too many will easily lead to your body adding more fat. Different carbs affect your body differently. Simple carbohydrates like sugars, candy, even fruit, will quickly boost your blood sugar but the carbs will be used up. Complex carbs like whole grains, rice, or even quinoa, take much longer for your body to break down, and will provide you with more energy over time.
Click here to read my blog post on different types of carbs and how they affect your body
Fat – There are lots of different types of fat, and your body needs most of them. Trans fat and saturated fat are generally considered a type of fat that you should avoid, as they contribute to higher cholesterol.
Check out my blog post for more on cholesterol and how to manage it
It can be hard to figure out how healthy the fat is in a food just by looking at the nutrition label. Generally, healthier fats are found in foods like olive oil, avocados, and nuts. There are lots of different medical opinions on how much fat makes for a healthy diet. Some weight-loss diets favor a low amount of carbohydrates and a higher amount of fat. What matters is that the amount of fat you eat is in balance with your other two macros.
Protein – Ah yes, the building blocks of muscle. Every weightlifter knows you need to have a steady amount of protein in your diet. Your body needs protein to rebuild itself, even if you’re not heavily exercising. A diet high in protein will also like make you feel full for longer, and help you reduce the overall amount of food that you’re eating. A healthy diet will incorporate a good amount of protein.
You’d be surprised that it’s not only meat that’s high in protein. Some nuts, beans, and other plant based foods are packed with protein.
Balancing Macros – A healthy diet will consist of a careful balance of all three of these major macros. How much of each you should eat in a day varies greatly on your body type, activity level, and fitness goals. The calculator below is a good place to start in terms of balancing your macros, but like I said above, a professional opinion is your best bet.
You can take the daily calorie goal from the calculator above and plug it into this macro calculator to get a sense how you should balance them.
Pretty much everything else you see on a nutrition label can be considered a micronutrient. Examples include Vitamins and Minerals, and the labels will tell you what percent of your daily value for each nutrient is included in one serving of food.
Important Note – Keep in mind that nutrition labels give you the percent daily value for a 2,000 Calorie diet. You should adjust these percentages based on your daily Calorie goal.
Generally, you want to make sure that you’re getting enough to these essential micronutrients, but if you’re eating healthy diet, you should have enough from the food you eat.
Check out my past blog post for more on vitamins, minerals, and supplements for more micronutrient information
Putting It All Together
So there you go, a simple four step process for getting information from nutrition labels. Start with the serving size, and keep an eye on the Calories. If you think a serving of food is worth the Calories, take a look at the macronutrients to make sure you have the right balance of carbs, fats, and protein throughout your day. Finally, take a look at the micronutrients to make sure you’re getting the right vitamins and minerals.
For more resources on reading nutrition labels, I recommend the following:
Best wishes for a happy, healthy September,