Nutrition Labels - What Does Any of it Mean?

Updated: Jan 2

Nutrition labels can be pretty overwhelming if you don't know what to look for. There are numbers everywhere, weird nutrients that you may or may not know, and more. I know I used to always read a nutrition label and not really know what I was supposed to be looking for, and I think that's something that a lot of us can relate to.


I am fortunate in that I have been extensively trained on how to look at a nutrition facts label and pick apart the information, and I want to help you be able to do the same. Below I have included my personal tips for what I look for when reading a nutrition label as well as define many of the terms you see on these labels and put some of the numbers into context.



Step one: Look at the Ingredient List

The ingredient list is a great way to get a quick snapshot of a food. My general recommendation is to look at the ingredients, and if there are a bunch of words that you need a background in organic chemistry to pronounce, it may be a food you should limit. That doesn't mean that you can never have that food - just try to have it in moderation (I like to follow the 80% healthy - 20% indulgent rule).


One important thing to know is that ingredients are listed in the order of their amount. In other words, the primary ingredients are listed first.


There is one particular ingredient that I'd like to talk about really quickly because it can be kind of confusing. Many people try to buy bread, pastas, and other types of grain products that say "Whole Wheat" or "Whole Grain" on the front of the package because these "whole" products are healthier. Unfortunately, companies are able to get away with marketing their product as a whole grain even if the primary ingredient is actually a refined one. There are two things to look for to make sure the product you are purchasing is actually a whole grain. First of all, look at the ingredient list. The FIRST ingredient should say "whole grain" or "whole wheat." If it says something like "enriched" or just "wheat flour," that means the primary ingredient is a refined grain (1). While it is not a fool-proof method, you can also look at the amount of fiber. Products that are whole grain typically have at least 2 grams of fiber per serving while refined grain products have less.



Step two: Look at the Serving Size

The serving size is possibly the most important part of a nutrition label because it puts everything into context. Some companies are sneaky and put a serving size that makes the rest of the nutrition label pretty misleading. For example, consider a bag of chips where the serving size is 5 chips. That means that ALL of the information on the label is talking about what is in just those 5 chips - the calories, fat, carbs, protein, everything! But who actually sits down and eats only 5 chips at a time? I know I certainly don't! The number of servings per container can also be really helpful. If a label says that there are 6 servings per container, you can multiply every number on the nutrition label by 6 to determine the nutrient content of the entire product.



Calories:

Are Calories important? Yes and no...


If you don't know, Calories are essentially the amount of energy within a food. That doesn't sound so scary, does it? People tend to want the lowest Calories possible to try and avoid gaining weight or to help lose it. It is true that the number of Calories you consume has an impact on whether or not you gain or lose weight, but trust me... it is not quite that simple (I wouldn't have had to endure months of organic chemistry, biochemistry, and advanced metabolism if it were!).


You can absolutely maintain a healthy weight or even lose weight without ever paying attention to how many Calories you are eating! In fact, I try to discourage people from counting Calories because I have found that it often leads to a very negative relationship with food. Instead, try listening to your body and respecting the cues it gives you. Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are full (I know... easier said than done, right? But you can do it!).


There are multiple medical conditions in which Calories become VERY important. If your doctor has talked to you about needing to meet a certain number of Calories every day, make sure to follow their recommendations!



All About Fat:

High fat diets seem to be all the rage these days. When people tell me they are following a high fat diet, I try to get them to think about the types of fat they are eating. There are several different types of fat, and each of them contribute in different ways to your health. Even if you are not following a high fat diet, it is helpful to know the differences.


Saturated fat: This type of fat is generally solid at room temperature, and it is known to increase your LDL cholesterol (known as your "bad" cholesterol). The current recommendations are to keep your saturated fat consumption to less than 10% of your Calories (about 22 grams per day for the average person) (2). Food sources high in saturated fat include:

  • Fatty and processed meats

  • Cheese, cream, butter, and other full-fat dairy products

  • Coconut oil (3)


Trans fat: This fat gets a bad rap, and for good reason! Trans fats are almost never found in nature; they are artificially made in order to increase the shelf-life of certain products. Trans fats have been found to not only increase your LDL ("bad") cholesterol, but also decrease your HDL ("good") cholesterol. The recommendation is to try and completely avoid trans fats if possible (4). Food sources high in trans fat include:

  • Margarine

  • Shortening

  • Some brands of coffee creamer

  • Processed ("convenience") foods (4)


Unsaturated fat: These are the "healthy" types of fat. Unsaturated fats can be broken down further into monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and more, but we won't get into that right now. Unsaturated fat is great because it can often provide anti-inflammatory effects (such as from Omega 3 fatty acids), and helps decrease LDL ("bad") cholesterol and increase HDL ("good") cholesterol when used in place of saturated fats (4). Food sources high in unsaturated fat include:

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Avocados

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna) (4)


Cholesterol:

With all this talk about "good" and "bad" cholesterols, you must be wondering what role cholesterol from food plays. Interestingly, it doesn't really have one! Recent research has shown that dietary cholesterol actually doesn't have that much of an effect on blood cholesterol! In other words, you don't really need to worry about this number. The one exception to this is if you already have high cholesterol, you may not want to go too overboard with cholesterol in your diet (5). Ask you doctor if this is something you should be concerned about.


With that said, foods that are high in dietary cholesterol also tend to be high in saturated fat, which as I mentioned earlier, is something you should try to limit (5). It's just something to keep in mind.



Sodium:

Nearly everyone consumes a bit too much sodium. The current recommendations are to consume less than 2,300 mg per day (the average American consumes over 3,400 mg/day). However, you should try to consume even less than this if you have high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor to see if this applies to you. Some of the main high-sodium culprits include meals from restaurants and processed foods (6).



Carbohydrates:

Lately it seems like people can't say enough bad things about carbs. But are they actually all that bad? NO!!


I think where people get confused is that they don't know the different types of carbs. Carbs are not just grain products like bread, pasta, and rice. Foods such as vegetables, fruit, and legumes are also carbohydrates. I can't tell you how many people come to me saying that they are on a low carb diet to lose weight, I show them a great salad, and they look at the nutrition label and say that there are too many carbs (I must admit I always cringe when I hear that).


Public Service Announcement: Veggies are amazing for you and actually help you lose weight! Please eat them!


Carbs do so many things for your body I don't even know where to begin. Instead of boring you with the details, I will just point out one super important fact about carbohydrates: your red blood cells and certain regions of the brain rely exclusively on carbohydrates for energy. Therefore, if you aren't giving your body enough carbohydrates, you are essentially starving your brain and red blood cells from the energy it needs, which can cause deleterious health effects (7).


There are two subsections of carbohydrates on the nutrition label that I would like to point out:


Fiber - If you have read many of my previous blogs or my eBook, you know that I love fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that does so many incredible things for your health including reduce blood cholesterol, protect against cancer, promote normal bowel movements, maintain normal blood sugar levels, and help you feel full longer (therefore you won't eat as much and can avoid gaining weight or work towards losing weight). This nutrient is the primary reason I cringe when people say that they don't want a salad because it has too many carbs. Women should aim to get at least 25 grams of fiber a day, and men should get at least 30-38 grams a day (8). Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber.



Added Sugar - Try to limit the amount of added sugars in your diet because they are empty Calories without many nutrients. The current recommendation is to keep added sugars at less than 10% of your Calories (9). The number one source of added sugar in Americans' diets is soda and energy drinks (10).


The carbohydrate takeaway: Carbs are not necessarily the evil little monsters that many people make them out to be. Please, please, please don't avoid eating things like fruit and especially vegetables out of fear that they will make you gain weight!



Protein:

I'm gonna be honest - protein needs vary widely from person to person. It depends on your age, weight, activity level, other health conditions, and more. The current recommendation is to have 10-35% of your Calories come from protein, which for the average person is anywhere from 50 to 175 grams per day (11). You should also increase your protein intake if you are in the process of losing weight so that your body doesn't start breaking down lean mass.


One thing I will say that doesn't really have to do with nutrition labels but is still important, is that you can get protein from plant sources! Plants such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are good sources of protein that don't have the same saturated fat composition as many high protein meats. Fish is also a great, healthy source of protein.



Vitamins and Minerals:

Vitamins and minerals (known collectively as micronutrients) are one of my favorite things to learn about when it comes to nutrition. Micronutrients are incredible because they play hundreds of roles in your body, and deficiencies in any of these nutrients can have severe impacts on your overall health.


One thing I would like to stress is the importance of getting your vitamins and minerals from your food. Research has shown that most of these nutrients are absorbed much more efficiently in their natural form, a.k.a. from food rather than supplements (12). I'm not saying that you shouldn't take a multi-vitamin. I personally take one every day. However, I try to meet as many of my vitamin and mineral needs as I can with my diet, and allow my multi-vitamin to cover anything I may have missed. One of the easiest ways to ensure you are getting a wide variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet is to "eat the rainbow" - in other words, include foods of every color in your diet.


When looking at the vitamins and minerals section of the nutrient facts label, pay attention to the percentages off to the side:

  • 5% or less is considered "low" in that nutrient

  • 10-19% is considered a "good source"

  • 20% or more is considered "high" in that nutrient (13)


Below are some of the most common vitamins and minerals and their primary functions (14):

  • Vitamin A - helps improve vision, immunity, and bone growth, acts as an antioxidant

  • B Vitamins (includes folate, niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin) - primarily involved in metabolism, but has many other roles as well

  • Vitamin C - improves immunity, helps build connective tissues, and acts as an antioxidant

  • Vitamin D - increases bone mineralization

  • Vitamin E - functions as a powerful antioxidant

  • Vitamin K - helps promote blood clotting (necessary for wound healing) and aids in bone mineralization

  • Calcium - increases bone mineralization and aids in neural signals and muscle contractions

  • Iron - helps your blood bring oxygen to your muscles

  • Magnesium - increases bone mineralization and aids in neural signals and muscle contractions

  • Potassium - helps maintain fluid balance and aids in neural signals and muscle contractions


I know this is a lot of information, so please comment below if you have any questions about reading nutrition labels!




Resources:

  1. Identifying Whole Grain Products | The Whole Grains Council. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/identifying-whole-grain-products

  2. Here’s an easy way to track fat in your diet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/fat-grams/faq-20058496

  3. Saturated, Unsaturated, and Trans Fats. (2015, December 9). Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/saturated-unsaturated-and-trans-fats

  4. Healthy Fat Intake | Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11208-fat-what-you-need-to-know

  5. Soliman GA. Dietary Cholesterol and the Lack of Evidence in Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients. 2018;10(6):780. Published 2018 Jun 16. doi:10.3390/nu10060780

  6. Get The Facts: Sodium and the Dietary Guidelines (2017, October). In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_dietary_guidelines.pdf

  7. Lashinger, Laura M. "Fuel Utilization Regulation." The University of Texas at Austin, 23 Oct. 2018, Austin. Lecture.

  8. Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

  9. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: Answers to Your Questions. (2016, January 5). Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines-answers-your-questions

  10. "Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 27 Feb. 2017, www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/sugar-sweetened-beverages-intake.html.

  11. Lashinger, Laura M. "Protein Metabolism 1." The University of Texas at Austin, 15 Oct. 2018, Austin. Lecture.

  12. Publishing, H. H. (n.d.). Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements? Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements

  13. The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label

  14. Steinman, Lydia. "A Functional Approach: Vitamins and Minerals." The University of Texas at Austin, April 2016, Austin. Lecture.

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