Sunday, March 9, 2014

Reading Nutrition Labels 101

Nutrition labels. You find them on almost everything you eat, but do you actually know what they are saying?

Not to brag, but I did take a required quarter of “Foods and Nutrition” when I was in 7th grade.
Perhaps you took it too? Maybe you are like me and it went in one ear and out the other. Sure I passed my tests and could technically “read” nutrition labels, but the numbers and letters didn’t mean anything to me at the time.
Fast forward to today and I think nutrition labels are very important!
Here is what I look at on Nutrition Labels:

Um, yes, I did eat this box of candy all by myself.
1. Serving Size and Calories
First, I look at the “serving size” and “servings per container”. As you can see from the picture above, a serving size is 16 pieces of candy. There are 2.5 servings in this box.
I then look at the “calories”. If I just eat 1 serving (16 pieces), then I am consuming 150 calories. Most likely, I will eat the entire box at once (2.5 servings) which means I would (and I did!) consume 370 calories.
2. Fat, Protein and Carbohydrates
Second, I look at the amount of fat, protein and carbs I am getting out of this food item. As you can see from the nutrition label, there are 0g of fat, 0g of protein and 92g (if you eat all 2.5 servings) of carbohydrates.
Okay, so now I know that all I am getting out of this candy is carbs (and 64g of those carbs are just sugar!)
3. Ingredients
Third, I look at the ingredients list. The ingredient that was used the most is listed first. As you can see, sugar is the main ingredient, followed closely by invert sugar.  Ah yes and then there is corn syrup (sugar) and then all kinds of lovely chemicals (RED 40, etc.)

Okay, so those are the 3 basic things I look at when I read nutrition labels. (There are other things you can read about too such as the amount of sodium and cholesterol, percent daily values of certain vitamins, etc., but we’ll save those for another day.)
FYI: I typically try to eat 5-6 meals per day that are 300-400 calories each. As you can see from my example, I ate 370 calories in one sitting. That is the equivalent of a caloric “meal” for me.
But did I get anything nutritious or beneficial out of it? Nope! Sure there were some carbs and carbs = energy, but they were very poor carbs. And you can bet that my hunger for actual food was not satisfied after that “meal.”
Okay, so now that everyone knows that I ate crap, let’s talk about what you can do so you don’t follow my bad example!

1. Measure out serving sizes.
If the serving size is “1/2 cup”, then stick to 1/2 cup. If the serving size is “1 slice” then only have 1 slice.
2. Balance
At each meal (remember I am eating 5-6/day), I try to eat a good balance of: one serving of a healthy carbohydrate, one serving of a lean protein, half a serving of a healthy fat, and lots of vegetables.  For instance, if I wanted bread to be my carb for a meal, then I would read the nutrition label and typically see that “1 slice” would complete my carb requirement for that meal.
3. Good ingredients.
If I am going to pick out something to be part of my meal that has a nutrition label, then I try to choose something that only has 1 or 2 ingredients listed and are items that I recognize. For instance, look at the picture above of the rice cakes. The only ingredient listed is “whole grain brown rice.” That is a good thing! No chemicals, added crap, etc. And I don’t need to pull out a dictionary to see what “whole grain brown rice” really is.

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