How to read Nutritional Labels to aid in Healthy Eating
At some time in our lives we’ve all made the conscious decision to eat healthier. Why not? The benefits are well worth it! However, does your diet fall in line with your health and fitness goals? Are you sure that you’re eating healthy? Many of us can’t answer that question. A lot of us think that we’re eating healthy because a particular food is perceived as being healthy and that’s not the case all the time. Knowing how to read food labels is important in that it ensures you are buying healthy foods and not just going off of universal perception. Below we go into detail to explain what is typically included on a nutritional label and what it means to you.
First and foremost, you will run into the dreaded ‘Calories’ section. A lot of people who do read labels only look at this section and still read it wrong. Calories are expressed in 2 ways on nutritional labels. They are expressed as ‘Calories’ and ‘Calories from Fat’. Before we go any deeper, another important thing to remember is that everything listed on the label is PER SERVING. This means that if a particular food product is 100 calories per serving and is a total of 8 servings then the entire product is a total of 800 calories. This is important because it lets you know that you need to watch your serving size when preparing food and think twice before you go for seconds.
Calories represent the total amount of calories (per serving) including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Calories are what your body uses for energy and if it is not needed it is stored and weight gain occurs. If your body is constantly metabolizing calories then weight loss occurs. So if you have a goal of gaining or losing weight, apply accordingly.
Calories from fat include different kinds of fat such as saturated fat (bad), unsaturated fat (good), and Trans fat (bad). Contrary to popular belief a certain amount of fat IS required in all diets. However, we’d like to try to avoid the bad fats such as saturated and Trans Fat (explained next). Out of the total number of calories you consume, at least 25 to 35% should be from fat preferably saturated fats. For instance if your daily calories are 1800 calories (per day) your daily fat caloric intake should be between 450 to 630 calories. That totals about 50 to 70 grams of fat. We get this number because 1 gram of fat has 9 calories so when we divide 9 into 450 we get 50.
Total Fat is expressed in grams per serving. Total fat usually includes unsaturated fat (usually not listed), saturated fat, and Trans fat.
Unsaturated fat is known as the “good fats”. They are usually broken down into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Keep in mind they are listed on labels sometimes and sometimes not. Just know that Total Fat minus Saturated and Trans fat gives you healthy unsaturated fats. These fats are usually derived from plants and vegetables and can help lower cholesterol. The 25 to 35% recommended amount (in relation to daily caloric intake) as described above should consist mostly of unsaturated fats.
Saturated fat is known as one of the bad fats. These are usually derived from animal products such as meat and eggs. They’ve been shown to cause increases in cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. It is recommended that not more than 7% of the recommended 25 to 35% should come from saturated fats.
Trans Fats are another type of bad fat. Although falls into the unsaturated fats category, it has been split into its own category due to the classification as a bad fat. They’ve been shown to increase bad cholesterol levels and decrease good cholesterol levels. Try to avoid if possible.
Next up on the label you’ll see cholesterol usually represented in milligrams. Cholesterol is produced by the liver as a waxy substance. Your liver usually produces a sufficient amount of cholesterol which your body uses to aid in building cell walls, producing Vitamin D and certain hormones. There are 2 types of cholesterol. Low-density Lipoproteins (LDL) which is knows as the good cholesterol and High-density Lipoproteins (HDL) which is known as the bad cholesterol. However, too much cholesterol can lead to health problems such as heart disease and clogged arteries.
Most foods we eat have LDL or bad cholesterol which clogs the arteries. HDL is responsible for removing waste from the arteries so they don’t clog. Being active or involved in some type of physical activity is said to increase the good levels of cholesterol. It is recommended that you aim to keep this number under 200 mg per day.
Sodium is a mineral that is actually needed in the body for certain functions such as staying hydrated, pH balance, fluid regulation, and a few more. Sodium is contained in most foods that we eat today. The recommended daily sodium intake should be between 1500 mg to 2300 mg. Those that have illnesses such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, and are older in age are recommended to stay on the lower end of that spectrum not to exceed 1500 mg. Too much sodium can lead to health problems with the most noted being high blood pressure which increases the chance of other health complications. As this is a necessary mineral, be sure to get no less than 180 mg to ensure your body continues to function properly.
Total carbohydrates or “carbs” as we like to call them consist of sugars, fibers, and starches. Starches are not listed most of the time. Carbohydrates are used to provide the body with energy needed throughout the day. It is recommended that 60% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbs. Be careful because carbs are metabolized and turn into sugar which can affect blood glucose levels. This is especially important for those with or at risk of Diabetes.
Dietary fiber can affect digestion. It is recommended that we try to eat 5 to 10 grams per day.
Sugars are sometimes added to food by manufacturers as a sweetener however, most of the time they are natural sugars such as those found in fruit. Sugars provide no nutritional value. If you can find foods with no sugar, that’s awesome! If that isn’t possible, it is recommended that you try to keep sugar less than 100 calories per day (about 6 tablespoons). To help put it in perspective, know that 4 grams of sugar equal 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories.
Last but not least we have proteins. Proteins are found all throughout our bodies, skin, nails, hair, cells, tissue, etc. It is responsible for the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissue. Needless to say protein is necessary for proper body function. The minimum recommended daily protein intake should be .8 grams for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. So if a person weighs 160 pounds, 160/2.2=72.72 and 72.72x.8=58 grams per day. This number may increase depending on your fitness goals. Bodybuilders usually consume higher amounts of protein to aid in muscle growth. However, when it comes to protein consumption the body only uses only what it needs and disposes of the rest.
Hopefully this article arms you with the information needed when shopping for healthier food options and knowing exactly what to look for. Always remember that percentages are represented per serving. This can also be useful when planning meals for the day so you can control how much of each macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) you are consuming. Good luck and Healthy Eating!