Food journaling was just the beginning. You know now what’ve you been eating and now it’s time to see what your food is made of. One of the fastest ways to see is by looking at the nutrition facts label on your food. After reading it, you can start to see what you should replace, cut out completely, and even things you need to add to your diet.
Nutrition facts labels can be a little confusing or overwhelming if you don’t know what every line really means. Grab a packaged food you eat all of the time--your favorite cereal, nutrition bar, or snack--and follow along with this post to get a better of idea of what you’re eating.
Looking at the layout of the label, you can see the facts are laid out with the nutrients and weights (in grams or milligrams) on the left, and the percentage of your daily value on the right.
A recommended daily value suggests how much of a nutrient you should have per day, and all food labels base this percentage on a 2000 calorie diet. The FDA states that 5% or less of your daily value is considered low in that nutrient, and 20% or more is considered high. While you may not be on a 2000 calorie diet, the percentages can give you a good indication of if a food is higher or lower in certain nutrients.
Though you don't have to measure out your food on a scale to change your physique, it is helpful to know how what ounces and cups actually look like. If it's helpful, grab a 1-2 cup measuring cup (the kind with numbers on the side) to visualize what the serving size is for the food you’re looking at.
Servings Per Container
This tells you how many of the serving size is in the package. With a food like cereal or bag of pretzels, it's obvious that there will be multiple servings per container. Some foods that you could imagine are one serving could be labelled as 2 servings, like a can of soup. If you eat more than the recommended serving size, you'll need to multiply all of the fat, calories, and other nutrients that are listed on the label.
In it's simplest definition, a calorie is a unit of energy. We need energy in order to function. Regardless if you count calories, it's still good to know what's on the higher or lower side of what you eat. If the majority of foods you eat are higher in calories, consider swapping some out for lower calorie foods for a better balance. Remember, the listed calorie count is tied to the serving size stated at the top.
Calories From Fat
This number tells you how many of the calories come from fat. If most of the calories come from fat, you can adjust the other foods in your meals throughout the day to be lower in fat so you can balance out how much fat you're having in a day. Fat that's not converted into energy in your body stays fat.
Your body needs fat to function. With that said, not all fats are equal. Below the main "Total Fat" header you'll can see saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat. The higher the saturated and trans fat numbers are, the more you should look into trying a different food. If the food is high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, that means it can, in moderation, be helpful for your body.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body makes and can also get from animal-based foods like dairy, meat and eggs. Your body needs some cholesterol to function, but too much can lead to build up in your arteries and restricted blood flow. If you have higher cholesterol, this would be an important line to check.
Processed foods are much higher in salt to amplify the flavor. Too much salt in your diet could lead to fluid retention, dehydration, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health issues. The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding foods with over 200 milligrams (or 2 teaspoons) of sodium per serving. There are a lot of misleading marketing terms about sodium, so check the nutrition facts before you buy.
Carbohydrates are sugars or starches that your body converts into heat and energy. Carbs are essential for providing energy for our bodies to function. Highly processed foods are usually packed with lower quality carbs that are quickly digested, could lead to energy crashes, and still leave you feeling hungry.
Dietary fiber is fiber you eat that our body doesn't digest or absorb. Fiber helps you feel full and keep you regular. There are two kinds of fiber and depending on what kind of food you're looking at, they could be listed on your food label. Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and helps moderate blood sugar and cholesterol. Insoluble fiber cannot dissolve in water and helps keep you regular.
Sugar is a carbohydrate your body turns into energy we need in order to function. There are several kinds of sugar: naturally occurring sugars from fruits and vegetables, processed sugars, and sugar alcohols. Though you can see in the ingredient list what kinds of sugar are in your foods, the label won't tell you the breakdown of added sugar to naturally occurring sugars.
Sugar on a nutrition fact label is only listed by weight. 4 grams of sugar is 1 teaspoon of sugar.
Protein is essential for muscle, cell, and organ health. Your body is constantly using protein to support your body. Protein is another nutrient on the label that's only listed as grams because your daily requirement depends on your age, gender, and activity level. You can have too much protein. Your body can convert the excess protein into fat and a large excess could adversely affect fueling your muscles. If you're curious about what your protein requirement is, look up protein calculators and see protein suggestions here.
Depending on what the food is that you're looking at, there will be a list of additional vitamins and minerals your food could contain. These are only told in percents of your recommended daily value. Remember that these numbers are based on a 2000 calorie diet, but a high percentage will still be a high percentage on a lower calorie diet, just with a different number.
The Fine Print
At the very bottom will be the disclaimer that the daily values are based on a 2000 calorie diet, and that this is not one-size-fits all daily value. There is also a table with suggested intakes a person eating a 2000 calorie diet should be eating.
Reading Your Food Labels
As you're looking through the food label you have in your hand, notice what nutrients' daily values are "high" (20% or higher) or "low" (5% or under). Are the daily values high in helpful nutrients, like fiber, vitamins and minerals? Are they low? Did you know what the serving size was before? Do you think you eat what they've defined as a serving?
Now that you've read one food label, start looking at the other labels in your house. Do you have a good mix of nutrients from your foods? On your next shopping trip, start to really look at the labels of the foods you’re thinking of buying. If you don't like what you see, start looking at the other foods around it and see if there's a healthier option. Change one food a week and see the impact it has on your energy, hunger, and waistline.
Healthy Eating 101 continues with exploring the food label’s ingredient list and what food additives to avoid that can get in the way of your health and fitness goals.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.Sugar Photo Credit: margouillat photo/Shutterstock.com; Food Label Photo Credit: Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock.com.