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Healthy Living 101: How to Read a Nutrition Label

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Too often, purchasing food can be confusing, especially with all of the persuasive marketing tactics used by food companies. Learning how to read, understand, and compare food labels can help you maintain, manage, control, and/or reduce health issues such as weight, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Use this guide to help you make more informed choices:


1. Serving Size and Number of Servings

The serving size is the most important part of the label. It will tell you what amount of the food will provide the nutrition found below it. If you eat more or less than the serving size, you will need to adjust the rest of the label accordingly. For example, a can of soup may have a serving size of one cup with a total of two servings (two cups). If you eat all of the soup, you will have to double everything on the label.

2. Percent Daily Value

You will notice that many of the items listed on the nutrition label will have a percent next to them. It is important to understand that this is based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Since every body is different, it is not appropriate for everyone to eat 2,000 calories every day. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on various factors, including your gender, height, weight, age, and activity.

3. Calories

Calories are the amount of energy supplied by a food.

4. Calories from Fat

Less than 30% of your total calories should come from fat.

5. Total Fat

This is the total amount of fat found in the serving size. The total is broken down by the type of fat (saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated) found directly underneath this.

  • Saturated fat - Limit saturated fat to 10% of total daily calories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease, specifically, coronary heart disease."
  • Trans fat - Try to avoid trans fats at all costs. Trans fats can increase your "bad" cholesterol and reduce your "good" cholesterol. Food companies can list a food as "trans fat free" if it has 0.5 g or less per serving. In addition to looking on the label, also look at the list of ingredients. If it has "hydrogenated" oil in it, it contains trans fats.
  • Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats - The majority of your fat intake should come from these sources. Examples of good sources include: nuts, canola oil, olive oil, and avocado.
6. Cholesterol

Most people should limit their cholesterol to 300 mg a day or less. For people with high cholesterol, this number is reduced to 150 mg or less a day.

7. Sodium

The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 1500 mg a day.

8. Total Carbohydrate

Similar to the total fat listed on the label, the breakdown of the total amount of carbohydrates is found directly below it (fiber and sugar).

  • Fiber - A food that has 5 g of fiber or more is a good source of fiber - aim to eat 25-35 g of fiber a day.
  • Sugar - The sugar listed can be both added and/or naturally occurring.
9. Protein

This is the amount of protein found in one serving.

10. Vitamins and Minerals

Food companies are required to list vitamin A and C content, but may voluntarily list others.

11. Footnote

Under the vitamins and minerals is a footnote that gives recommended levels of intakes based on 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. If your calorie intake falls within this range, this may be a helpful tool.

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.If you would be interested in working with Mandy one-on-one, sign-up for FitDay Dietitian.

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