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Gobble, Gobble: Deciphering Nutrition Labels

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The holiday party season can be tough to navigate if you’re watching your weight. So many cakes and pies and cookies!


Inevitably, for millions of Americans, losing the holiday weight gain ends up being the New Year’s resolution. 


But it isn’t just weight you have to watch. Unfortunately, much of the food we eat today is unhealthy, low in nutrition, and filled with chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and other unnecessary substances. Below are some tips for reading and understanding nutrition labels so that you can be sure you’re making smart, informed choices for you and your family.  


Look at the serving size. 
This is where most people get tripped up. One package or one container almost never equals one serving size. For example, a serving size of juice or soda is 8 ounces but is usually sold in 12- or 20-ounce cans. Snack food can be a minefield: one serving of chips is usually just fifteen of them, a serving of cookies is two or three treats. Yikes.


So not only do you have to do some math to calculate the calories you’re consuming, you also have to adjust the information for every other category on the label. In other words, if a can of soup has 800 grams of sodium per serving and there are two and a half servings in the can then your big bowl of soup has 2,000 mg of sodium—practically the total amount you should get in one day—if you eat the entire can.


Read the list of ingredients. 
A good general rule of thumb is to avoid purchasing products with a long list of unpronounceable, unknown, “chemical-sounding” ingredients. Try not to buy anything with partially hydrogenated oil (see below). Also pay attention to the order of the ingredients on the label. They are listed in order of highest amount to lowest. So if sugar is listed first that means there is more sugar in the product than any other ingredient. 


Be mindful of the calories. 
How many calories you should consume in a day varies with age, height, physical activity, and special needs. Most adults will be in the 2,000 calories/day ballpark. This is why reading the serving size information is so important. The frozen pizza you just ate is 600 calories a serving, and since there are three servings in the box, you’ve just consumed a day’s worth of calories! (I’m guilty too.)


Check the amount of sodium.
Eating foods high in sodium has been linked to cardiovascular problems so limit your daily sodium intake to 2,300 mg or less. There is often a lot of sodium in canned foods, especially soup and beans. Again, remember to check the serving size when you make your calculation.


Check the fat content. 
Try not to buy anything with trans fat, which is created when liquid oils are hardened to extend their shelf life. It is harmful, unhealthy, and unnecessary. In fact, Denmark has banned it from processed food altogether and New York City is also considering a ban, even in restaurants. Baked goods, including cookies and crackers, and microwave popcorn often contain these unhealthful substances. Look for partially hydrogenated oil on the list of ingredients. 


Check the fiber. 
Aim for 35 grams a day to keep your digestive system healthy.


Check the protein. 
Most people eat too much protein, which requires calcium to digest. If you eat too much protein you can pull calcium from your bones, weakening them. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, you only need 9 grams per 20 pounds of body weight. 


Educate yourself. 
Visit the FDA’s website on nutrition labels for an illustrative discussion of a nutrition label. 

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