Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to food labels, ignorance can sabotage your weight loss goals. At first glance, a nutrition label can be overwhelming with all of the numbers, ingredients, and nutrients staring back at you, and it’s tempting to simply not look at it and avoid sussing out what’s important to your health. The good news is, you don’t have to be a scientist or dietitian to benefit from food labels, and – more importantly – you can do it quickly. Here are 4 areas to focus on the next time you’re walking the aisles.
Note the Serving Size
This is a sneaky tactic that you can get wise to in a glance. All too often we assume the small package we’ve thrown into our carts is a single serving, when it’s actually 2 or more. I’ve even seen microwaveable meals that have 2 servings! Have you ever split a microwave dinner with someone? You don’t have to precisely calculate everything on the label, but if there are 3 servings in a package, know that the 330 calories featured on the label is actually nearly 1,000 for the package. This goes for all those percentages as well. A can of soup that has 26% of your sodium needs seems innocent enough, but if you plan to eat the whole 2 serving can for a meal, you’re over 50% of the recommended daily intake. In my opinion, the worst offenders of this size allotment are ice cream and cereal, where a standard serving is 1/2 Cup and 3/4 Cup respectively.
Check for These Highs and Lows
The % Daily Value (%DV) notes the percentage of each nutrient in every serving, in terms of the recommended daily allowance (based on a 2,000 calorie diet which is average for a grown adult). Overall, anything 5% and under is considered low, while values 20% and over are considered high. There are a lot of nutrients and vitamins listed on the standard food label, so knowing which ones matter the most can save you time when skimming a label.
Generally, you want to have a limited amount of Saturated Fat (11-13g tops a day is a good guide), Cholesterol, and added sugar (6-9 teaspoons a day, which in the US we go WAY above and beyond in the worst way!), as little trans fats as possible (this is listed separately under Fat just as Saturated Fat is), and keep your sodium to under 1,500mg a day. The %DV represents these guidelines. On the flip side, place an importance on choosing products high in dietary fiber, protein, calcium, and iron. Again, you don’t need to whip out a calculator, but when grabbing salad dressing, if the label reads 28% of your saturated fat for one serving (nearly always 2 Tablespoons), consider looking for a different brand.
Question Health Claims
This is where grocery shopping gets downright maddening. While the actual nutrition label shows you objective numbers, companies will distract you with seemingly healthy buzzwords and images. Have you noticed sugary cereal claiming to be a “good source for whole grains!”? Legally to be a “good source of”, an item needs a meager 10% DV, and you can bet those 14g of added sugar per serving aren’t going to be plastered across the box in large font. A big one on my list is the term “made with whole grains”, which merely means there are some whole grains in the food, not that it’s made of entirely whole grains. Look for 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain to get the biggest bang for your caloric buck.
Generally, the more over the top and prevalent the health claims on an item are, the farther they are from actually being healthy. For 16 common misleading food claims, check out this post on Health.com!
Consider the Ingredients
Health claims can be subjective and misleading, but listed ingredients tell the real story. Two general tips I always recommend, are to seek items with the least amount of ingredients, and the more known ingredients (like the ones you can pronounce!) the better. It’s good to know that the ingredients are listed by weight in descending order, meaning the main ingredients are the top 3-5 listed on the label. Pay attention to these if you have any food allergies or sensitivities.
I mentioned earlier about limiting added sugars, but what are added sugars? Simply, added sugars are those added to foodstuffs during processing/preparing. A banana has a lot of sugar, but it is natural, where as a candy bar has added sugar. This is a tricky one, because sugar has a ton of names that often fly under the radar. Check out this list on choosemyplate.gov and get familiar with the many names of added sugars.
Remember, these aren’t hard rules, but guidelines to help you make healthier choices while grocery shopping. If you’re picking up brownies for a pot luck, sugar is probably going to be a main ingredient and there won’t be much protein or vitamins, and that’s OK! But when you’re picking up staple items for healthy cooking at home, look at the numbers and compare brands to make the healthier choice. It will take a little time to compare brands, but once you find one you trust, the decision is made for every other trip to the store. I have a few breads that I trust and buy, so I’m not rereading every label each time I go to the store.
A big help for me that I recommend to everyone I talk to (seriously, I’ve told someone about it at a bar), is the free app Fooducate. As a label reader, it is my BFF. You scan the barcode of nearly any item (new or small production items are sometimes not listed, but new ones are added constantly) and up pops a health grade. From A+ to D-, you can quickly evaluate the quality of food and compare to other items. If you want to know more, you can see why it got the grade it did by seeing how it ranks in different categories; high in fiber, highly processed, low in sugar, high in protein, etc.
Cooking healthy at home is a goal for many of my clients, and healthy home cooking starts at the store. If you feel stuck and overwhelmed with planning healthy meals, my Power Hour Session can give you clarity. We’ll spend 60 minutes talking about where you are, and figure out how to get to where you want to be. You’ll leave with an action plan of 1-2 specific goals and strategies that fit your life. Ready for change? Email me today and let’s talk!