How to Use the Nutrition Facts Label

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The Nutrition Facts Label can be confusing: There’s a lot of information on that thing! Reading it is one challenge, understanding it and applying it to your specific needs is another. Some look only at the number of calories before deciding whether to consume a food or beverage. If that’s you, your missing a few important steps that could help you reach your health goals.

Beyond Calories

First, I have to break some bad news. The calorie counts on food labels are not 100 percent reliable. They’re helpful, and the best we’ve got so far, but they are not reliable. Precision Nutrition, my favorite go-to for Nutrition information has a fantastic breakdown on “The Surprising Problem With Calorie Counting.” It’s a 2-part series that’s a bit in depth, so I’ll hit the highlights here.

  1. The calorie and macronutrient content (those are carbs, fats and protein) of a single food type (e.g. Potato to potato) because of differences in how and where it was grown and how it was stored.
  2. Cooking, chopping, and other preparatory methods change the amount of calories available in the food.
  3. We do not absorb all of the calories we consume, and everyone absorbs calories and calorie amounts differently.
  4. If you’re eyeballing your serving sizes you’re probably underestimating the amount of servings, and therefore calories, you’re eating from the get-go.
  5. The 4 calories per gram of protein and carbs and the 9 calories per gram of fats is an oversimplification that doesn’t consider fiber and other factors.

What does all this mean? It means, relying solely on calorie counts to determine whether a food product is “good” or not to eat, isn’t the strongest choice.

What this doesn’t mean, is you should throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, calorie counts and counting are flawed. But they are still valuable. Use them as a guide to make decisions and compare like foods (e.g. Yogurt to yogurt). Just be sure to look at serving sizes and a few more things on the label before making a final decision.

What are those things?

Macronutrients and Ingredients

One other thing on the calorie point is that 100 calories from grapes isn’t 100 calories from candy. So, you have to look at where those calories are coming from. Grapes give you natural sugars, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Candy, not so much.

Sugars are something everyone should look at and watch. The World Health Organization recommends added sugars (not natural, but added) make up less than 10 percent of your total daily intake.

If you have high or borderline high blood pressure, you’ll want to watch your sodium intake. Everyone should eliminate trans fats. Generally speaking, people should aim for a daily diet high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Beyond that, the amount of carbs, proteins and fats you should aim for really depends on a host of factors specific to you. The best thing to do is to work with a nutrition coach or dietician. Your medical provider might be able to point you in the right direction as well.

As for ingredients, they’re listed in order from highest to lowest amounts. Use this list to compare seemingly like products by making sure the ingredients you’re reducing (e.g. Sugar, salt, enriched flour) are not top of the ingredient list on one or both items. Enriched flour isn’t a whole grain, in case you’re wondering.

Big Picture

There’s a lot of noise out there around nutrition. It’s an emotional topic for many, adding to the confusion. When in doubt, go back to the basics:

  • The fewer ingredients the better, generally speaking
  • Is it a whole food
  • Is it fresh
  • Are you hungry or just thirsty or just bored
  • Do I enjoy this food

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