If you’re motivated to eat healthy, understanding a nutrition label is really important. The facts and ingredients are often glanced over, with most attention paid to calories. Here are a few simple things to remember the next time you’re shopping for your favorite foods.
How to Read Nutrition Facts
Calorie for calorie, here is the breakdown of the 3 macronutrients – protein, carbs and fat.
Protein = 4 calories/gram
Carbs = 4 calories/gram
Fat = 9 calories/gram
(and for those of you wondering, Alcohol = 7 calories/gram)
Proteins don’t have any subcategories on the label. They are what they are. How well they’re absorbed depends on the type and quality of protein you’re eating (meat vs beans; more vs less absorption).
Carbs typically have two subcategories on the label – sugar and fiber. As a rule of thumb, it’s smart to stick to foods that have 14 or fewer grams of sugar in them (barring fruits and vegetables). Heads Up: Sugar may be fat free, but excess sugar will eventually get converted to fat in your body. Fiber is generally never a bad thing. Typically more is better.
Fat usually has four subcategories on the label – saturated, poly and monounsaturated fats and trans fats. USDA guidelines encourage use to eat less saturated fat, and more unsaturated (of total fat consumed). Personally, I make a couple exceptions with saturated fats, particularly coconut oil – which is incredibly nutritious, and some whole fat dairy. Trans fats, as we all know by now, should be avoided. They were never good.
Cholesterol, Sodium and Potassium
Listed along with protein, carbs and fat, cholesterol, sodium and potassium are markers on nutrition facts. The American Heart Association recommends keeping daily consumption of cholesterol at 300mg or fewer. Your body does need cholesterol and will produce plenty on its own. (Why is cholesterol important?) Sodium in foods really needs to be watched. Sodium is a preservative, and for the most part, less sodium in processed food is better. Potassium is an important electrolyte, and a plays a crucial role in maintaining many of our body’s functions. The daily recommended allowance for adults is 4.7 grams (or 4700mg)!
Jumping past the facts and moving to the ingredients on the label, we’re often hit with a myriad of words we can’t pronounce, that ultimately go into one cracker, cup of soup and many other processed foods.
Try to remember that fewer ingredients are better. Ingredients are listed from greatest to least. If cane sugar is the first ingredient, the food’s most abundant ingredient is sugar. The words “partially hydrogenated” means trans fat. The word “enriched” means stripped, as it applies to wheat. Enriched wheat has been stripped of its nutrients, meaning it has been refined. The words “hydrolyzed” and “autolyzed yeast” mean MSG.
Get to know your labels. Your health depends on it.