Easy Reading: How to Decipher Those Nutrition Labels
By Michael Lasalandra
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent
With the updating of the federally-mandated nutrition fact labels in 2003 to include trans fats, there is really no excuse not to know what you are eating -- at least when it comes to most prepackaged foods.
"Of course, people have different issues they need to look out for, but, whatever the issue, they should look at the label and look out for those things," says Liz Moore, registered dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "It's always a good thing to know what you are eating."
The labels begin with a standard serving size, and that's the first thing to look at. "You've got to know how many servings there are in each container," says Moore. "Sometimes, it may look like it is just one serving in the container, but it might actually have two, three or four servings in it."
If that's the case and you eat the whole bag or box, you've doubled, tripled or quadrupled the amount of calories or fat you are consuming.
Calories are listed second, along with calories from fat. Total calories, along with serving size, are the most important things to look for if you are watching your weight. "If you are trying to lose weight, you will definitely want to look at serving size and calories per serving," Moore says. "Taking in extra overall calories is what makes you gain weight."
Total fat is listed after calories. "I suggest looking at total fat, but make sure to read underneath to find out what kinds of fat are included," she says. "You want to limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats."
She notes that a cup of premium ice cream may have the same number of grams of fat as a tablespoon of olive oil, but points out that the fat in ice cream is saturated, while the fat in olive oil is monounsaturated. Saturated fat is linked to cholesterol and heart disease, while monounsaturated fat is known as a "good fat" and works to lower cholesterol, she notes.
Fortunately, many foods no longer contain trans fats, an artificially produced fat that is linked to higher cholesterol and heart disease. These fats are mostly found in processed foods such as baked goods, but some manufacturers have phased them out because they are so unhealthy and have received lots of bad publicity.
Labels also list cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.
Those watching their weight should also pay attention to fiber, according to Moore. "It makes you feel full longer," she says. "The more fiber the better." A product is good if it contains 4 or more grams of fiber, she says. "The goal is 25 to 35 grams per day," she adds. "Most Americans don't get half of that."
Total fat intake generally should not exceed 30 percent of total calories. About 60 grams of fat is about right for someone consuming 2,000 calories per day.
In addition to looking at labels for weight reasons, consumers also can pay attention to them for a variety of other health reasons, including heart health and diabetes.
For example, those with heart issues should pay attention to the amount of cholesterol and should aim for consuming less than 150 mg per day, Moore says.
Those with high blood pressure should pay close attention to sodium content. Healthy adults should ingest no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, while those with blood pressure issues should keep it to fewer than 1,500 mg, she says.
People with diabetes should look at carbohydrates, sugars and fiber, according to Moore. The amounts of sugar and carbohydrates they consume should depend on the particular diabetes regimen they are following and what medications they may be on, she says. These should be set in connection with the health care professional overseeing their diabetes care. Fiber is good for those with diabetes because it can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
Posted June 2009