The serving size is the most important part of a food or beverage label. All of the nutrient facts below it are based on that particular portion size. If you eat or drink an amount different than what is listed, you must adjust everything on the label accordingly.
Consuming too many calories results in weight gain, while too few could result in a stall in weight loss, so finding the right balance is important. (Use FitDay's calorie counter or talk to a licensed nutrition professional to find out what your calorie goal should be.)
When looking at a label, check to see if the serving size is realistic for the calories. How will these calories impact the rest of your day's choices?
Consider creating a calorie budget for meals, snacks and beverages. For example, if your ideal calorie goal for weight loss is 1800, and you plan to eat two snacks, three meals and solely drink water, you can subtract out 300 calories (150 calories for each snack) and then divide the remainder by three (for your meals), and water will not affect your day because it has no calories. You end up with 500 calories for each meal and 150 calories for each snack.
Percent Daily Value
Percentages are listed on the right hand side of a label. These are based off of a 2,000 calorie diet. Although your calorie goal may be different, you can still use the percentages to easily help you identify high and low amounts of nutrients. To determine if an item fits into your daily plan, find a nutrient and then look at the percent--five percent or less is considered low, while 20 percent or more is high.
Beneficial fats include poly- and mono- unsaturated fats. Saturated fats should be limited while trans fats should be avoided completely. Keep in mind, all fats are calorie dense. Be wary of fat-free foods, some are good while others just replace the fat with something else that could still keep the calories high.
Eating foods high in sodium can result in temporary water retention, possible weight fluctuation and high-blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1500 mg of sodium a day.
According to the Mayo Clinic, high-fiber foods help with weight loss and maintenance not only by providing volume, but also by slowing digestion thereby making you feel full longer on fewer calories. The recommended amount of fiber for adults is 20 to 35 grams per day. The grams will be listed just to the right of the word Fiber. If both soluble and insoluble are listed, look for "total fiber" to find the full amount found in one serving.
Vitamins and Minerals
To ensure you're getting the most nutrition out of your foods, check out the vitamin and mineral content at the bottom of the label. Food and beverage companies are only required to list two vitamins--A and C--and two minerals--calcium and iron--on the label. According to the National Institutes of Health, other vitamins and minerals can be added voluntarily. However, if vitamins and minerals are added to the food, or if a vitamin or mineral claim is made, those nutrients must be listed on the label.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling for raw fruits, vegetables, or seafood. However the FDA does provide nutrition information for these foods online.
According to the National Restaurant Association and US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, Americans are spending half of their total food budget in restaurants and fast food establishments. Don't forget, nutrition information isn't limited to store-bought items. Look online or ask your server for nutrition information or guidance to help you make healthy choices when outside of the home.
Mandy Seay is a bilingual registered and licensed dietitian who holds both a bachelor's degree in nutrition and in journalism. After gaining 30 pounds while living abroad, Mandy worked to lose the weight and regain her health. It was here that she discovered her passion for nutrition and went on to pursue a career as a dietitian. Mandy currently works as a nutrition consultant and freelance writer in Austin, Texas, where she specializes in diabetes, weight management and general and preventive nutrition. She recently published her first book, Your Best Health, a personalized program to losing weight and gaining a healthy lifestyle. Please visit Mandy's website at Nutritionistics.com.