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THE complete beginners guide to reading a nutrition label

THE complete beginners guide to reading a nutrition label

I was recently living in Turkey for about 8 weeks and, something that was really difficult was adjusting to the language barrier. I thought, more than a little naively, that a lot of things would have dual turkish and english wording (after all Antalya is a city built on tourism), well I was wrong.

I tend to eat pretty clean, and I tend to choose foods high in protein: high in healthy fats,  low in carbs, and foods that are minimally processed… One of the first things I always do before buying something is take a look at the ingredients list and the nutrition facts. In Turkey, that wasn’t easy for me.

Not only are the nutrition facts in Turkey listed in Turkish, but the nutrition label is very different… there is no RDA (recommended daily allowance) nicely placed on the package (with a percentage based off of 100%), and the labels are not formatted for a serving size (like ¼ of a box), but rather they are listed in grams or milliliters…

As I found myself fumbling through the items on the MIgros shelves (Migros is one of the largest and most popular grocery stores in Turkey), I found myself staring at a label speaking in a language that isn’t my own. I thought to myself “This must be how many people feel back in the States!”

Suddenly I could relate to someone who has never read a nutrition label or chosen healthy foods at the market suddenly being sent out into a store with the task to get only healthy foods. It would be a lot like reading a label that you couldn’t understand…because for someone who has never read a label it would be similar to reading a foreign language.

 

How could someone be expected to pick healthy foods when they don’t even know how to read a nutrition label? Especially with all of the deceptive marketing practices companies use.

 

newtons

Newtons, deceptively delicious

I noticed this one the other day…These fig bars say no high fructose corn syrup, but then when you look at the ingredients, you find corn syrup right up there at the top of the list! Sure they aren’t lying…there is no high fructose corn syrup, Just regular corn syrup and sugar.

How can companies even get away with this?

 

And there are lots of tricks that companies and businesses use to make you think what you are getting is a healthy choice. They use unregulated terms like “Low sugar” (a low sugar Gatorade can still have 15 grams of sugar in a serving), “made with whole grains” (to make people think they are buying completely whole grain products, when they could really just have a small amount of whole grains added), and “natural” (which basically means jack squat…)

Companies also know how to create the feeling that something on a shelf is healthy. Packages regularly feature sprawling green fields or pastures; they have words like “natural”, “farm fresh”, or now with “30% less sugar”. All of these clever tactics are supposed to lead you to one conclusion: that this food is a healthy choice.

 

The only way you are going to make sure that what you are putting into your body is of a good quality is by learning how to read an ingredients list, and also by learning how to read a nutrition label. want an even easier guide to healthier eating that you can apply today? Check it out here

 

So, how do you read a nutrition label?

nutrition label

Here is a basic nutrition facts label.

If you take a look at your label, you will notice several different things.

 

At the top you will see the serving size and the number of servings per container. The nutrition facts you see listed on the label are going to be based off of a single serving. This is important to note, because if you’re serving size is a half cup (like listed above), and yet you eat 1 cup, that means everything you see on the label has to be doubled (because you are eating 2 servings with a 1 cup portion).

serving size, nutrition label

Nutrition label with servings highlighted.

 

Next you will see the calories present in one serving of the food and the amount of calories that come from fat. Calories from fat doesn’t really matter unless you are counting your macros (but that will be for another day and another post).

calories

Calories highlighted

 

Skip down another line and you will find the fat content broken down for you on the nutrition label. Typically labels will first show you the total fat content, then under it they will show the totals for saturated fat, and sometimes they will show the totals for other fats like trans fat (never eat foods with trans fat), polyunsaturated fats (not so good fats found in corn or vegetable oil and a lot of meats like chicken and fish), and monounsaturated fats (healthy fats found in foods like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados).

fat content

Here you can see the fat breakdown present on many nutrition labels.

 

As a general rule of thumb…look for foods with zero trans fat, moderate to low levels of saturated fat (with a few special exceptions like dark chocolate and coconut oil), low levels of polyunsaturated fats, and high levels of monounsaturated fats.

 

Skip down again and you will find the cholesterol and sodium content listed. As a rule of thumb, try choose foods with lower levels of sodium and cholesterol. Most foods with high levels of these on the label are highly processed and full of low quality foods. For example: one serving of canned soup often has around 30% of your RDA of sodium (along with a huge list of other dyes, preservatives, and other ingredient you wouldn’t care to eat).

content of sodium

Sodium and cholesterol content

Some high cholesterol foods (like liver and eggs) are perfectly fine for you (as long as you don’t have a rare condition), just don’t overdo it. Ignore the people who tell you eggs are going to give you a heart attack, and most of the people telling you this are drinking down sugary drinks and using vegetable oil to cook their food (high carb diets and high levels of polyunsaturated fats are far worse for your health than a couple of egg yolks here and there.

 

In general, avoid high cholesterol and high sodium foods (except for eggs and liver which are naturally high in cholesterol). These types of foods tend to be highly processed and unhealthy.

 

Next comes the fun part! Carbohydrates…the nutrient that some love and some people love to hate. Carbohydrates aren’t going to kill you, but, and that is actually a CAPITAL BUT, carbohydrates do have a lot of power over your health.

nutrition label

Carbohydrate, fiber, sugar content

Unfortunately carbohydrates aren’t broken down into simple and complex carbohydrates on nutrition labels, but you can learn more about what types of carbs are better or worse (here).

First you will see the total carbohydrates present in a serving, and then under that you will usually see the amount of sugar present, and the amount of fiber present (sometimes the fiber will be further broken down into soluble and insoluble fiber).

 

Without reading the ingredients list you can’t really know what types of carbs are present, but follow this general rule for health: try to keep total carbohydrates fairly low (say under 25 grams per serving), and try to choose foods that have a high amount of fiber per serving (2 or more grams), and low or zero sugar. The higher the fiber content and the lower the sugar content, generally the better the food is for you.

 

The last macronutrient in our journey is everybody’s favorite, PROTEIN! Protein is important for so much in the diet, and the amount of protein that most people get is way less than it should be when compared to the amount of carbs and fat that they eat.

Protein content

Protein content

High protein foods are anything that is 8-30 grams per serving, and you should look to choose foods that are generally high in protein. If you are fairly inactive, then you might only need 0.5 grams per lb of bodyweight…IE a 180 lb inactive male would only need about 90 grams of protein, while a highly active person may need from 0.8 grams per/lb- up to 1.3 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight.

 

Choose foods with high protein levels (8-30 grams per serving), and look to get ½ gram- 1 gram of protein per lb of bodyweight (depending upon activity level). Active 150 lb person should get 150 grams daily, inactive 150 lb person should get at least 75 grams of protein daily.

 

Lastly your label will list for you all of the vitamins and minerals in your food. Some labels are very in depth and offer lots of information in this department, while some labels only show basics like vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.

Nutrients

Nutrients

The more vitamins and minerals you see in a food, generally the better it is for you. High nutrient foods are often fruits and vegetables or fortified and non processed foods.

 

You will also find an ingredient list on each of your labels.

ingredients list

ingredients list

Ingredients list will tell you exactly what is in your food. Though these lists don’t have to tell you percentages, they do have to tell you what is in it listed in the order of the amount: so the first thing you see is the primary ingredient, and then each item after the first is ordered in descending order.

Key take away points for ingredient lists

General rules for healthy foods based off of ingredients:

  1. If sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup is high on the ingredient list, it isn’t good for you.
  2. If the ingredients list is like a short novel, it porbably isn’t good for you (highly processed)
  3. If the list has a ton of words that you can’t pronounce or sounds like a chemical lab experiment, then it isn’t good for you.
  4. If bleached flour is high up on the list, it isn’t good for you.
  5. If the number of ingredients is 5 or less and is very straightforward, than it may be a good choice IF and only if the nutrition label checks out.

 

General rules for healthy food based off nutrition facts

  1. As a general rule of thumb…look for foods with zero trans fat, moderate to low levels of saturated fat (with a few special exceptions like dark chocolate and coconut oil), low levels of polyunsaturated fats, and high levels of monounsaturated fats.
  2. In general, avoid high cholesterol and high sodium foods (except for eggs and liver). These types of foods tend to be highly processed and unhealthy.
  3. Without reading the ingredients list you can’t really know what types of carbs are present but follow this general rule for health: try to keep total carbohydrates fairly low (say under 25 grams per serving), and try to choose foods that have a high amount of fiber per serving (2 or more grams), and low or zero sugar. The higher the fiber content and the lower the sugar content, generally the better the food is for you.
  4. Choose foods with high protein levels (8-30 grams per serving), and look to get ½ gram- 1 gram of protein per lb of bodyweight (depending upon activity level). Active 150 lb person should get 150 grams daily, inactive 150 lb person should get at least 75 grams of protein daily.
  5. The more vitamins and minerals you see in a food, generally the better it is for you. High nutrient foods are often fruits and vegetables or fortified and non processed foods.

 

The number one thing that will help you in getting a better understanding of nutrition labels and ingredients list is just always reading them. Over time you will start to internalize and figure out what types of foods are good for you and what their nutrient content is like.

Have you ever taken the time to read nutrition labels? Then I would like to hear any tips that you might have for the other visitors of the site, and as always, If you liked this post and if it was able to help you at all, please leave give it a share on Facebook or Twitter or let others know about it so that it can help them too!

 

If you are interested in learning more about fitness, health, or healthy eating, then see what personal coaching can do for you!

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