Understanding Nutrition Labels: The Key to Healthier Eating
Imagine your favorite book or movie. Now imagine having only read an outline of the story, not the descriptive details and arcs that draw you in. Would you feel the same way about it? Probably not.
Reading just the outline is how most of us read nutrition labels - they tell us some information but the important substance is left up to our own understanding. When it comes to food, this can lead to unknowingly making unhealthy food choices.
In this article, we’re going to uncover the four most important parts of a nutrition label so you can confidently understand how to choose healthy foods.
1. Calories - What They Really Tell You
For the past few decades, healthy eating has been based primarily on calories - ‘calories in, calories out’ is a popular mantra. Calories only tell you how much energy you are consuming, but they tell you nothing about the quality - ingredients, nutrients, how our body metabolizes the energy.
IMAGE - candy bar vs sweet potato
- Candy bar (snack size) - 83 calories, 4.1 g fat, 1.5g saturated fat, 10g carbs, 0.4g fiber, 8.6g added sugar, 1.3g protein, nearly no additional vitamins or minerals
- Sweet potato (medium, baked) - 102 calories, 0.2g fat, .1g saturated fat, 23g carbs, 3.8g fiber, 0g added sugar, 2.3g protein, high Vitamin A, B6, Manganese, Copper, some Iron, and additional vitamins and minerals
Let’s look at an example. A ‘snack-size’ candy bar and a medium sweet potato have about the same number of calories. Crazy, right?! When someone is staying within a specific calorie count, they could eat that candy and still be within their calorie goals. But is that a healthy choice? Of course not. There are so many nutrients that they are not getting.
Calories are good to glance at when maintaining or losing weight, but this number is not the most important indicator of a healthy choice.
2. Fat - What the Different Types Mean
Many people have a fear of fat. We need fat for many body processes - energy, cellular health, absorbing crucial fat soluble vitamins, protecting organs, and benefiting your heart and brain.
There are different types of fats, some that are essential for our health and some that are detrimental. Let’s look at the different kinds of fat so you can understand how to make a healthy choice even when the label shows high fat.
- Saturated fat: This is the fat in animal fats, coconut oil, and butter. Excessive consumption of saturated fats can raise your LDL cholesterol levels (the bad cholesterol). The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6% of calories per day from saturated fat (about 13 grams based on 2,000 calories).
- Trans fats: Trans fats are often found in partially hydrogenated oils (such as margarine) and are detrimental to heart health. Ideally, a nutrition label should display 0 grams of trans fat, as even small amounts can be harmful.
Unsaturated fats: These fats are beneficial and sometimes even essential, such as Omega 3s. They help reduce cholesterol and benefit heart, brain, and gut health. Unsaturated fats are not always listed on the label, but they are frequently included on foods that contain these fats. There are two types:
- Polyunsaturated fats: We must get essential fats Omega-3 and 6 from food - olive oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, soybeans and tofu.
- Monounsaturated fats: These are in plant based oils, some nuts and seeds, avocados, peanut butter.
3. Carbohydrates - What Is a Good Amount
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your body and brain. Complex carbs (whole grains, vegetables) provide important nutrients, especially when eating a plant-based diet. The nutrition label lists carbohydrates in a few ways, so let’s break them down.
- Carbohydrates: Total carbohydrates indicate all carbs in the food - carbs (simple and complex), sugars, and fiber. This number can be deceiving because a fruit salad and a candy bar would have high carbs and high sugar, but only fruit would have high fiber - an indicator of a healthier choice.
- Sugars: This is a confusing number! Sugars include both processed sugar (cane sugar, corn syrup, etc.) and natural fruit sugar (fructose). This is when it is important to look at the added sugar.
- Added sugars: These have been added to the food and are not naturally found in it. They have no nutritional benefits and are usually inflammatory. Whole fruit will have high sugar but no added sugar.
- Dietary Fiber: Fibers are the ‘intact’ part of a food - the ‘whole’ part of a whole grain. They are beneficial for gut health, lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar, and an indicator of a complex carbohydrate. A fiber to carbohydrate ratio of 1 to 10 is ideal (1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbs).
4. Ingredients - What You Are Actually Eating
While not part of the nutrition label itself, the ingredients list is crucial. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This is where you can really know what is in your food. A few good questions to ask are:
- How many of these are close to whole foods? (whole grains, nuts/seeds, fruit, vegetables)
- How many ways are sugar listed? (Sugar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, syrups)
- What can’t I pronounce? (Find out what they actually are)
- How many preservatives, colors, and flavorings have been added? (An indicator of high processing and poor quality)
While sticking to whole foods most of the time is best, you can’t beat the convenience of premade foods! But know what you are eating. I hope this article will help you read and understand the underlying content of a nutrition label.
- Yeo, G., PhD. (2021). Why Calories Don't Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong. Pegasus Books.
- American Heart Association: Dietary Fats
- Cambridge University: Identifying Whole Grain Foods