One of the first things you should do before sitting down to any meal is read. We’re not talking about the text or email you just got, we’re talking about labels. There’s a lot you can learn about the things you eat and it’s right in the palm of your hand. The nutrition facts label is packed with information.
The nutrition facts label can be a good guide if you’re trying to put together a healthy meal plan.
The label will help you track how much you’re getting compared to how much you should be eating. So, let’s take a look at some of the important things you can learn from the nutrition facts label.
The Nutrition Facts Label: Ingredient List
When you look at the nutrition facts label, your eyes should immediately go to the list of ingredients. Keep in mind, ingredients are listed in order of decreasing volume. Whatever the product contains the most of will appear first on the list of ingredients, and so on in decreasing order.
If you see fat, sugar or salt within the first five ingredients, you can safely assume that the food in question isn't going to be among the healthier options for you. Also look for things like enriched flour, which has been stripped of its nutritional value.
The Nutrition Facts Label: Serving Size
The reason for the nutrition facts label is, well, it contains facts. The first fact to check is the serving size. Pay attention to what a single serving is and how many servings are in a package.
For example, the nutritional information on a box of cereal is typically based on one cup. It’s not by bowl, so if you want the numbers to be accurate, grab yourself a measuring cup every morning and scoop your cereal into your bowl.
The Nutrition Facts Label: Calories
You’ll want to check calories next, but look at the total calories per serving. Think about the serving size and how many servings you're actually eating. If you double the servings you eat, you double everything, including the calories.
You’ll also want to pay attention to calories from fat. The Food and Drug Administration explains it this way: if the nutrition facts label says one serving of food contains 150 calories and 100 calories from fat, the remaining 50 calories comes from carbohydrate, protein, and/or alcohol.
The nutrition facts label lists the calories from fat because fat has more than twice the number of calories per gram than carbohydrate or protein.
The Nutrition Facts Label: Fat and Sodium
This section of the nutrition facts label is important. You’ll want to limit everything listed between total fat and sodium.
Most people require no more than 56-78 grams of fat per day. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like:
- Heart Disease
- Some Cancers
- High blood pressure
You’ll always want to keep saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol to a minimum. Your body makes more saturated fat than it needs, so you don’t need to get more from your food. Trans fat raises your LDL or “bad cholesterol”, and cholesterol can cause your arteries to narrow and make them less flexible.
Getting too much sodium can raise your blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day and an ideal limit of less than 1,500 mg per day for most adults, especially for those with high blood pressure
The Nutrition Facts Label: Dietary Fiber and Vitamins
This part of the nutrition facts label has all of the good stuff in it. Make sure you’re getting enough of everything listed between dietary fiber and vitamins. You should be getting 100 percent of the fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need each day.
Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions
The Nutrition Facts Label: The Footnote
The footnote at the bottom of the nutrition facts label is all about the Percent Daily Value: This section tells you the percent of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount. The Food and Drug Administration came up with this chart. It explains how much fat, cholesterol and sodium you should get if you stick to a 2,000 calorie diet.
Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet
If you’re hoping to put together a healthy meal plan, the nutrition facts label is a good place to start. You should flip over every box you can you pick up. Take a look at things like the ingredient list and the footnote to ensure you’re eating right.
If you want to consume less of an ingredient (such as saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium), choose foods with a lower percentage Daily Value. If you want to consume more of a nutrient (such as fiber), seek foods with a higher percent Daily Value.
The nutrition facts label is an important part of any diet. It contains pertinent information that you can use to put together a healthy meal plan. It’s an easy way to find out if you’re getting more of what you want in your diet, or what you don’t want.
Another way to develop a healthier menu for yourself is by downloading our guide “How to Eat on a Busy Schedule.” In it you’ll find some tips to help you eat healthier at home and on the go.