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What should I look for on nutrition labels?

For the most part, it’s not necessary to inspect every piece of information on the label if you consistently pay attention to a few key things.

The first thing you want to look for is the serving size and servings per container, so you know what type of portion you are working with. Pay extra attention to servings per container if you’re buying an individually packaged food (like chips, a candy bar, or trail mix), as they are often 2-4 servings per package.

Next look at calories. As a rule of thumb, try to limit foods that are high in calories but small in serving size. For example, ¼ cup of Naked Granola, or about 1 large handful, is 150 calories. That’s the same amount of calories in a banana and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, which will be more filling. Note that whole nuts are the exception to this rule, as while they are energy dense, they also contribute to satiety and provide healthy fats, protein and vitamins.

Now look at fat. Avoid packaged foods high in saturated fat and anything containing trans fat. Opt for foods moderate in fat or higher in poly and mono unsaturated fats. Examples include almonds, salmon and guacamole. If you’re looking for a snack to eat within an hour of starting a workout, choose something lower in total fat, as a higher-fat snack before exercising could cause stomach pain and discomfort.

Finally, check the carbohydrate, sugar and fiber content. Ideally, you want a food that is lower in sugar and higher in dietary fiber (men need 38 g and women 25 g of fiber per day). It is recommended that most people get less than 30 g of sugar per day, so try to pick foods with less than 5-10 g of sugar per serving. And if you are eating within one to two hours of beginning a workout, choose something a little lower in fiber (less than 5 g total) as this can, along with fat, cause stomach discomfort during the workout.

Sarah Koszyk
Nutrition & Dietetics

Tips for reading a nutrition label:

  1. Fiber Content: 3 grams of fiber is a good source of fiber. 5 grams (or more) is an excellent source of fiber. Foods higher in fiber will fill you up more than foods lower in fiber.
  2. Sodium Content: many foods add sodium for a longer shelf life and flavor. "Very Low Sodium" products have 35 mg or less of sodium. "Low Sodium" is 140 mg or less. These numbers are sometimes hard to come by, so over the entire course of the day, you want to consume no more than 1500 - 2300 mg of sodium.
  3. Fat Content: 5 grams of fat is equal to 1 serving of fat. For most meals, having a fat content of 5-15 grams of fat per serving is normal. Most snacks should be about 5 grams or under for a reduced-fat diet.
  4. Sugar Content: Make sure to take note of the sugar content and where the sugar is coming from. Is it coming from natural sources such as fruit or milk/yogurt? Or is it coming from added sugars such as sugar cane, agave, table sugar, etc.
  5. Take a look at how many servings you get from the package. Sometimes a package serves more than just 1 serving. We can consume the whole package thinking we're only eating 1 serving but we may be eating 2.5 servings which can more than double our caloric intake.
Here's why it's smart to check out the nutrition facts found on most food labels.

You can:
  • Find out which foods are good sources of fiber, calcium, iron and vitamin C.
  • Compare similar foods to find out which is lower in fat and calories.
  • Search for low-sodium foods.
  • Look for foods that are low in saturated fat and trans fats.
Always read the Nutrition Facts Label when purchasing a product. Look for both the serving size (the amount for one serving) and the number of servings in the package. Remember to compare the serving size listed on the label to the amount you actually eat. If the label serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, twice the fat and twice the other ingredients listed on the label.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.