Nutrition labels are similar to a table of contents in a book; it tells you all of the information you need to know about the food and drinks you consume. Understanding how to read food labels can help you learn how to portion your food and to eat a healthy diet. The nutrition facts label is printed somewhere on packaged food and is usually easy to find. Nutrition labels can feel overwhelming because of the amount of information they provide, but if you understand how to read them, they are an excellent resource for finding the foods that nourish your body.

Getting Started – Calories

Food label percentages are based on an adult diet that consists of 2,000 calories a day. It is essential to understand that serving sizes will need to be adjusted if you do not want or need to eat 2,000 calories a day. While these numbers do vary considerably, the general rule of thumb is that women should eat around 2,000 calories a day to maintain their weight and approximately 1,500 calories a day if they want to lose weight. Men should eat about 2,500 calories to keep their weight, and around 2,000 calories if they want to lose weight. The number of calories children should consume every day varies greatly, between 1,500 and 3,300 depending on age, how fast they are growing, and many other factors.

Measuring Nutrients

Most food labels have nutrients measured in grams (g) or milligrams (mg). All food contains various vitamins, minerals like iron or calcium, and fat, protein, fiber, and carbohydrates. Everyone needs to eat a certain amount of nutrients to have a well-rounded diet, and nutrition labels help people to understand how they’re consuming those nutrients.

Comparing Labels

Serving sizes on food labels are not an exact science because people have different daily nutrition needs, depending on activity levels, age, and gender. However, nutrition labels still give valuable information because they give you an idea of what nutrients are contained in the food you want to eat. Also, they inform you about how many calories are in each serving and how much food constitutes a serving. Food labels also make it easy to compare two similar products to determine which one is better. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but if you have two products that have almost the same nutritional value, but one has more fiber per serving or fewer calories per serving, you may want to choose the one that is going to add more value to your diet.

Checking Ingredients

Another essential feature of the food label is the ingredient list. To help you know what is in the food you eat, ingredients are listed in order with the first few items being what most of the food is made up of. The ingredients that there is only a little of are listed toward the end of the ingredient list. One ingredient that a lot of people watch for is sugar. If you look at a label and see high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, corn syrup, sugar, or glucose within the first few ingredients, that will inform you that there is a lot of sugar in that food.

Serving Sizes

Food labels list serving sizes to let you know how big a serving size is and how many servings are in the container. For example, if you have a bag of candy and the label says two pieces of candy are one serving, and there are ten servings in the bag, that means there are twenty total pieces of candy in the bag. It takes a little bit of math, but understanding serving sizes can help you determine how much food you need depending on the number of people you are serving.

Total Fat and Calories from Fat

Calories are a measure of the amount of energy contained in food and energy comes from carbohydrates, protein, or fat. People watch calories because the number of calories directly affects if you gain or lose weight. Your body turns calories into energy, and if you consume too many calories, it causes you to gain weight. On the label, you will also see the percentage of calories that come from fat. It is important to understand how many calories come from fat because it is generally a good idea to limit your fat intake to less than thirty percent or less of the calories you eat every day. The total fat is listed in grams and tells you how many fat grams are in each serving of food. For many years there has been an idea that fat is bad; however, that is a myth. Fat is important for growth. On the label, you will see the different types of fat, unsaturated, saturated, and trans-fat, listed separately.

Other Nutrients – Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbohydrates, and Protein

Cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein are all listed on the nutrition label. Cholesterol and salt are measured in milligrams and are on the label because there are some people who need to watch how much of those they allow in their diet. Carbohydrates are a nutrition data that tells you how many grams of carbs are in each serving of food. They are calculated by breaking down total grams of fiber and grams of sugar. Because carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for most people’s bodies, it is important for them to be a part of your daily diet; however, too many carbs can cause weight gain and other health problems over time. Like many other nutrients, protein is vital. Your body uses protein to repair tissue, make enzymes, produce hormones, and create additional body chemicals. It is necessary for the well-being of your muscles, cartilage, bones, blood, and skin.  Making sure you consume enough protein is critical. On a nutrition label, protein is usually measured in grams.

Vitamins and Minerals

Various vitamins and minerals are listed on food labels. The amounts of vitamins or minerals contained are presented as a percent of the daily value, which means the label tells you how much of your daily needs are in the food you are going to eat.

Tips and Tricks

Now that you understand the different items on a nutrition label, here are some tips for how to read them.

1. First Look at the Serving Size

The first thing you want to do is check out the serving size. When you are planning a meal or snack, think about how much you usually consume and then use the serving size to determine if it is a good option for you. If one cup of cereal isn’t enough to sustain you and you know you will want two, you will want to double the serving size and nutrients listed. Then, you can determine if you’re going to eat that amount of nutrients. The serving size helps you plan how much food you want to eat.

2. Consider the Calories

Counting calories can be helpful for some people, especially if you are trying to lose weight. Consider the number of calories in a serving and let that help you determine which snack will meet your caloric needs while also filling you up.

3. Use Percent Daily Values as Your Daily Nutrient Food Guide

Percent Daily Values are listed on the food label to help you determine how that food will fit into your daily plan. The percent Daily Values are determined by a 2,000 calorie per day diet and give the percentage of each nutrient it will satisfy in your diet. If the label says the meal has 10 percent protein, that means the food will provide 10 percent of the protein needed in the average 2,000 calories per day diet. If you are looking at saturated fat, trans-fat, sodium, or cholesterol, anything under 5 percent is usually good, while foods that have over 20 percent of your daily value are considered high.

4. Aim to Get Enough Vitamins, Fiber, and Minerals

If you want to eat to feel good, eating the right nutrients for your body is important. Fiber, vitamin D, potassium, iron, and calcium are all good nutrients that help reduce health risks. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of most healthy nutrients, and you will want to pick foods that have a high percentage of vitamins and minerals.

5. Understand Additional Nutrients

While most people pay the closest attention to calories, calories from fat, carbohydrates, sugar and sodium, it is also important to look at other nutrients as well. Foods with a lot of names that are difficult to pronounce typically have a lot of additives or preservatives. Also, people with food allergies or sensitivities depend on the ingredient list to let them know about any exposure risks.

Final Thoughts

While it may take some time to understand how to read a nutrition label, the valuable information makes learning them worth it. The food you put into your body plays a huge role in your overall health, weight, and how you feel. Being conscious about the ingredients in the food you eat is also a reliable way to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need.

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