How to Correctly Read a Nutrition Facts Label
Let’s briefly review nutrition labels and how to read them. This knowledge is useful for everyone, whether you are dieting, trying to gain weight or just plain eat healthy. Ok, so here you see a rather generic looking nutrition facts label. I’m going to go over each section individually.
The first thing you should look at is the serving size and number of servings per container. You should pay close attention to this. Food producers will decrease serving sizes and increase the number of servings per container to make the number of calories appear less than it actually is. It can be very tricky.
Above you see two different presentations of the same generic label. Each serving size is 2/3 of a cup, and there are about 8 servings per container of this product. Next time you drink a bottle of soda or juice, read the nutrition label first. You might think it's going to be 1 serving per bottle, but likely it is 2 or 2.5. Remember to take the calories per serving times number of servings to get total calories.
Number of calories is generally pretty straightforward. If you’re trying to lose weight, this is something you need to pay close attention to. Net calories consumed is *the* major factor regarding whether you gain or lose weight over time.
Now dietary fat is an important aspect your nutritional intake. You need it. Trans fats are the worst for your health, and you want to avoid those. Pick foods with low to no trans fats. Some people think saturated fats are good for you, and others bad. The jury is out, but there is evidence linking saturated fat to cardiovascular disease. The good fats are unsaturated fats, and that can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
- Saturated Fat Explained: https://youtu.be/q_1VnxMpqqU
- Unsaturated Fat Explained: https://youtu.be/Kv_SboRzD4o
- Trans Fat Explained: https://youtu.be/b_cqXOeWg3s
On the right of the fat content, you'll notice that it says a number and %. This represents your percent of daily value based on a 2000 calorie diet and recommended daily allowance of each macronutrient (fat, protein, carbohydrates).
Cholesterol is used in the synthesis of certain hormones and steroids, so your body needs it. But not an overwhelming amount, just in moderation. It has been linked to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Low cholesterol is generally a good thing.
Sodium, which is effectively the same as salt, is also important. It’s a good preservative so you will see it in a lot of shelf stable products like canned goods, crackers, sauces, certain meats, etc. For people with certain diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure, salt can make them worse. Thus, being aware of your sodium intake can be beneficial. The RDA is 2,300 mg/day.
Total carbohydrates are obviously very important. This isn’t the best example, but these values can vary wildly depending on what you are eating. You definitely want to pay attention to the total number of carbs. What you really want to pay attention to is how many grams of the total carbs are simple sugars. Simple sugars are more readily absorbed and, generally speaking, are more likely to cause you to gain weight and predispose you to developing diabetes. It’s not an exact correlation, which is why the glycemic index exists. However, in general the lower sugar the better. Dietary fibers are the better type of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrate Metabolism Explained: https://youtu.be/EZ8dA8t9_RE
Protein is very important. It’s essential for all functions and organs of your body. This is especially true for physically active individuals as it is essential to building skeletal muscle. I would not be overly worried about consuming too much protein. This is the most important macronutrient in my opinion.
Protein Metabolism Explained: https://youtu.be/hFMMhgtE0d8
This is the area for vitamins and minerals. I’m not going to go over this in detail as it’s rather straightforward. If there are specific vitamins or minerals you are trying to supplement, this is the place to look. You’ll find calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium etc down here as well as all the vitamins. Occasionally, potassium will have its own category but the interpretation is the same.
This last section is just telling you what the percentages mean. They are based on an estimated 2000 calorie diet. Obviously, this is going to vary best on your daily caloric intake. I would encourage you not to spend too much time worry about this section as it is very generic and required by the FDA. If you’re not eating 2000 calories a day or you have different macronutrient requirements and it simply does not apply to you.