Taking a more serious look at our health often means digging deeper into our diets and what we are putting into our bodies. To do this, we have to pay attention to the food that we buy, where it is sourced, and the portions we are consuming. And, all of this begins by taking a look at the nutrition label that accompanies most of our food. But, what exactly does it all mean?
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Reading Your Nutrition Labels
While it is certainly a good practice to look at your food label, it won’t mean anything if you don’t understand it. Below are a few helpful insights to help you understand and get the most out of your food’s nutrition label.
When looking at the label from top to bottom, the first bit of information you will encounter is the serving size. This is the amount that people will typically eat or drink and could be explained by “pieces” or measurements like teaspoons, tablespoons, or cups. Then it is followed by a metric unit. While this is what most will eat, it is important to note that this is not a recommendation of how much of this food item you should eat.
Following the serving size will be the number of servings held in the package. While a serving size may be one cup, there could be five cups within one package. These sizes are all standardized in order to compare food and beverage choices. The calories and nutrients to follow will all relate back to the specific serving size.
Calories are a measurement of how much energy you can get from a serving of food. While 2,000 calories per day is a generally accepted amount, it really may be higher or lower depending on your age, sex, weight, height, and activity level. In order to maintain a proper weight, calories consumed through eating or drinking must equal the calories expended throughout the day.
After the serving size, calories will appear next on the nutrition label, and this is the number of calories that will be ingested at the serving size amount. Eating more than that amount would mean multiplying the number of calories and nutrients. Consuming too many calories each day for an extended period of time could lead to being overweight or obese.
Following calories on the nutrition label is a list of nutritional information that displays important nutrients that could have an impact on your health. This portion can help you select foods wisely if there are particular items you are trying to avoid.
For example, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, while they may not be completely avoidable, choosing foods with lower amounts could lead to a healthier lifestyle. Not only have these been shown to promote poor health effects, they could lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Total vs. Added Sugar
Next, you may come across a line that says “Total Sugar” and one that says “Added Sugar.” Total sugar is that which naturally occurs in foods or beverages, like fruit and milk, along with any added sugar. Added sugar is anything that was incorporated during processing including syrups like honey, sucrose, dextrose or those that are concentrated from fruits and vegetable juices. Choosing a diet that includes calories from added sugars may make it a challenge to stay within recommended calorie levels and get adequate nutrition.
Fiber and Other Nutrients
Below sugar, you may find amounts for fiber and other nutrients like Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Though most Americans do not get enough of these, they promote tremendous benefits including:
- Increased bowel movements
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower blood glucose
- Reduced caloric intake
- Reduced risk of osteoporosis and anemia
- Less risk of high blood pressure
On the right hand of the nutrition label you will find percentages that make up the Percent Daily Value. This is the percentage of the daily value for each nutrient within a single serving of the food or beverage. Just to the left of this percentage will be the amount of the nutrient listed in either grams, milligrams, or micrograms and are references on how much to consume or not exceed within a day.
When a nutrient is listed at 5% Daily Value or less per serving, that is considered low, while a value of 20% or more is considered high. To keep your diet in check, try to choose items with a high percentage of fiber, Vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium and a low percentage of sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat. Most importantly, try to maintain a balance. If you consume an item with a higher percentage of sugar or saturated fat, try to choose items that are lower in these throughout the rest of the day.
Trans Fat, Sugar, and Protein
Exceptions to the Percent Daily Values are trans fat, sugar, and protein. For trans fat, scientists were unable to provide a reference value for trans fat sufficient enough to confirm a daily value. Similarly, there are no recommendations for how much sugar to eat in a day, and therefore, no daily value.
For protein, a Percent Daily Value is required when an item claims to be “high in protein” or if it is a food or beverage for infants and children under the age of four years. However, if an item does not fall into one of these two categories, a value is not required and often, not listed. At this time, protein is not an issue of public health for adults and for children over four years of age in the United States.
While it may seem tedious at first, reading and understanding your nutrition label can help you take that first step to a healthier lifestyle. Over time, you will get into the habit of reading or simply knowing which foods are not only good for you, but make you feel your best. Start reading your food labels today and experience the difference it can make in your life! For more info please contact us.
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