How You Should Be Reading Nutrition Labels


Reading labels can be very tricky! Food companies don’t always make the ingredients clear because the truth may cause you to steer clear of their products. It is up to us to seek the truth and understand how to read the labels so we can make educated decisions. So grab something from your fridge or pantry and prepare to squint at those nutrition labels.

  • Serving size – Serving sizes are important. Often in America we tend to eat far more than we should. Food companies don’t do a great job at making it unclear so that you eat more of their product. The nutritional advice on labels refers to one serving size. For example, a bag of potato chips may say that a serving size 110 calories per serving but that entire bag may be 3 servings. That said, finishing an entire back can cause you to consume 330 calories! If you’re looking at nutrition labels, you must look at serving size and servings per bag/container to help you portion control.
    • Be sure that when you are reading labels you are adjusting them according to your actual serving size. For example, if half a cup is 75 calories and you are eating a full cup you are in taking 150 calories. The calories from fat line tells you how many calories come from fat. If most of the calories are from fat you may want to stay away from it or eat it in moderation.
  • Calories – To calculate the amount of calories you need to intake daily based on energy needs you can use the Harris-Benedict formula. It takes into account the person’s age, sex, height, weight and level of physical activity.
    • First you calculate your basal metabolic rate.
      • BMR Equation for males: 66 + (6.2 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.7 x age in years)
      • BMR Equation for females: 65.5 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
    • Then you take the number you acquired and multiply it by an energy factor to determine caloric needs.
      • Sedentary, little to no exercise: BMR x 1.2
      • Light exercise, 1-3 days of exercise: BMR x 1.375
      • Moderate exercise, 3-5 days of exercise: BMR x 1.55
      • Heavy exercise, 6-7 days of exercise: BMR x 1.725
      • Extreme exercise, 2-a-days, 6-7 days of exercise: BMR x 1.9
    •  Example: If you are a female, 21 years old, 5’2″, 123 pounds, who works out 6 days a week, your equation would look something like this:
      • 1.725 x (65.5 + [4.35 x 123] + [4.7 x 62] – [4.7 x 21])
      • Total Caloric intake: 1,368.27 Calories per day
  • Fats – When checking for fat content it is key that you note not just the total amount but the specific kids of fats. All fats are not bad fats. You should stay away from trans fats and saturated fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated are okay. It is also important to note that fat-free does not mean it is better for you. Often times fat-free items just mean added sugar. Companies do this because once you take away fats products don’t taste as well sometimes. They add in more sugar to keep people buying the product. Don’t let them fool you!
  • Cholesterol – Cholesterol is calculated as milligrams per serving. However, just because it says there are 0 mg of cholesterol doesn’t mean there is an absence of cholesterol raising fats known as hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenated fats can be worse than cholesterol and saturated fats. If you read the fine print of the ingredients and it says anything is “partially hydrated” before an ingredient, know that that food contains a cholesterol rising ingredient.
  • Sodium – If an item is more than 140 mg of sodium it is not considered low sodium. The daily recommended amount of sodium is 2300 mg. Anything higher puts you at risk for high blood pressure.
  • Potassium – Potassium is not required to be on all labels but just because it is missing from the label doesn’t mean it is not there. Many Americans need more potassium in their diets. Potassium can help with blood pressure levels, counteracts the increasing effects of sodium. Foods without nutrition labels, curiously enough, tend to be the most rich in potassium like fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry and meat. Even foods without it on the label such a dried beans, nuts and yogurt contain high levels of potassium. When you do come across an item with potassium on the label look for at least 10% of daily value.
  • Total Carbohydrates – The total carbohydrates portion tells you how many grams of carbs are in each serving. This number includes starches, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, added sugar sweeteners, and non-digestible additives.  The greater the difference between total carbohydrates and sugar the more “good” carbs there are. This means it contains more natural sugars than added. The closer the quantity of sugar is to total carbohydrate the worse the quality. One way to figure out the quantity of healthy carbs is to subtract total carbs from sugars. For example, if a box of cereal has 30 grams of total carbs and 15 grams are from sugar then there are potentially 15 grams of healthy carbohydrates.
  • Dietary fiber – Fiber falls underneath the umbrella of carbohydrates, and is unique in that it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. In fact, fiber can slow down the effects of carbohydrates on your blood glucose. When you are calculating the amount of carbohydrates in an item you should subtract the amount of dietary fibers from total carbs. This will give you the amount of carbs that do effect blood glucose levels.
  • Sugars – Sugar is added to most foods for flavor, and while that’s all very tasty and satisfying to your palate, the problem is that sugar is the leading cause of weight gain. However not all sugar is bad sugar. Sugar found in fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grain are okay for you because they contain simple sugars that when found in whole foods come with a number of other nutrients including fiber which dramatically slows down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. This moderates the impact on blood sugar. Try to avoid added sugars as much as possible! Those are where the problems lie. Guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily, while men should limit their added sugar to 9 teaspoons.
    • When reading labels it will tell you the amount of sugar in a product but going back to the serving size, it is key that you remember that is for one serving, not the entire product. So if the label says 7 grams of sugar per serving and there are 5 servings in a bad, that is actually 35 grams of sugar in a package. For women, that one serving has already exceeded your daily allowance for sugar intake, so don’t tempt yourself for more.
  • Protein – For the average person that is moderately active, it is recommended they consume .45 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That is plenty even if you are breastfeeding or working out regularly. Most people get enough protein without effort (the exception being vegetarian or vegans, who are likely to acquire their protein in the form of nuts and beans).
    • If you are trying to bulk up, protein powders are fine to add into your diet, but there is no need to overdo it. Three-quarters to one scoop is enough and adding more will just result in an abundance of protein that will go to waste, not actually increase gains. Also watch for added sugar in protein powders that are used to enhance taste
  • Percent Daily Value – Percent daily value is based on daily value recommendations for key nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie diet. You can use it as a reference as to if you ate more or less than 2,000 calories in your day. The label does the math for you. Each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirement for that nutrient. For example, one serving of whole wheat crackers has a total fat value of 18% then you have consumed only 18% of you daily value of fat out of 100% in that one serving. If you eat two servings you have consumed 36% of your daily fat allowance, leaving you with 64% more fat allowance for the day. 5% or more daily value is low and 20% or more daily value is considered high. Try to keep track of your macro and micronutrient percentages to allot yourself the proper nutrients to last you through the day.
  • Ingredients – Ingredients are listed in order of quantity. The ingredient listed first is the most abundant. When checking your grains that claim to be whole wheat it is particularly important you check the ingredients. If it says “whole-grain” or “wheat flour” it is not the same as whole wheat. Checking the ingredients is how you make sure you aren’t tricked into eating bad food.





Leave a Reply