How to Read a Nutrition Label
The first thing you want to look at is SERVING SIZE. This may be the most important part of the label! This tell you how much you are meant to eat to equal all the other provided information. It also will inform you how many servings are in the package.
I’ve added a picture of a nutrition label to this post. This is the label we will be referring to throughout.
In the picture I’ve added, you can see serving size is 1/2 cup.
Next you’ll see calories. It’s 200 calories.
Where this comes into play is calculating a true and accurate set amount of calories eaten that day. If you double your serving, you have doubled your calories. If you want to lose weight, you need to accurately count calories.
So, if you ate 1 cup, you will have actually eaten 400 calories.
A note on serving size: It is not a guide on how much to eat. It’s just what the average person eats when eating this food. This may not be the amount you want to eat, and may not even be close to the ideal amount you should eat. I’ve been known to half my serving size in order to half the calories. So, if I did a serving size of 1/4 cup for this label, I’d cut it down to 100 calories.
If you learn nothing else about how to read a nutrition label, please just learn to look at serving size! (And yes, I suggest you actually measure your food, rather than try to eyeball it. You WILL get it wrong if you don’t actually measure!)
What’s a Macronutrient?
The next part of the label will include your macronutrients. This is your carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. There are nine calories in every gram of fat (regardless of what type of fat it is). Carbohydrates and proteins have four calories per gram. If you have ever heard of someone “counting macros” this is what they are counting. (There are plenty of calculators online to help you decide the right amount of macros for your body. However, if you are very new to nutrition, I would just start with the basics of calories.)
Fats give your body energy, help keep your body warm, help your body absorb some nutrients, and produce important hormones, among other things. You need fats. There are four types of fats: saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fats.
However, not all fats are created equal.
It then breaks it down into saturated fat and trans fat. You want to avoid saturated fat and trans fat, as they are not healthy fats. These bad fats can raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels in your blood.
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and can be beneficial when eaten appropriately/in moderation.
Total Carbohydrates are the macronutrient listed next on our label. They provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy used to support bodily functions and physical activity.
But, again, not all carbohydrates are created equal.
There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
The primary source of simple carbohydrates are refined sugars such as table sugar, honey, and the corn syrup found in soft drinks. Also, most fruits are made up of simple sugars. What’s the difference between the two? There is no difference in the way your body uses them — glucose is glucose. The difference is in the concentration of sugar and the additional nutrients that may be supplied.
Complex carbohydrates are found in wheat, rice, oats, corn, beans, and legumes. Starches are found in plants such as potatoes or roots. During digestion, your body “chops” the long chains into glucose units and that’s the form absorbed into your bloodstream, ready for your body to use. Most complex carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables as well, contain dietary fiber which is good for keeping your digestive system functioning properly and keeping you full longer! (Learn that fiber is your friend.)
The carbohydrates are also broken down into Dietary Fiber and Sugars. Sometimes you will also see sugar alcohols. You may notice that these figures do not add up to the total. This is because starch is not listed on food labels. Therefore, any missing carbohydrate can be assumed to be starch.
I would be wary of sugar alcohols. These aren’t as sweet as sugar, so often they use A LOT of this to make up for it.
Next, on this label, you will see Protein. Protein is another macronutrient, but its primary role has nothing to do with giving you energy. The body contains thousands of different proteins, and all serve a different purpose. Proteins are made up of many thousands of smaller units called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, nine of those are essential, meaning you must get them in your diet.
Some proteins serve as hormones, some give your body structure, are antibodies, transport nutrients, among multiple other purposes.
(There are so many many things we could discuss about the macronutrients. I’ve only glazed over them. You could write doctoral thesis papers over them! This, however, is enough basics to help you understand why they are on your nutrition label, and how you might be able to use them in your understanding of what you are eating.)
Other Parts of the Nutrition Label
Cholesterol is listed. I am purposely not saying much about this. Cholesterol isn’t totally bad. In fact, your body even needs cholesterol and your liver makes it daily. However, we know bad cholesterol can lead to heart disease as well. Discuss this with your primary care provider.
Sodium. This is important, especially if you need to watch your blood pressure. It’s recommended to keep sodium down under 2300 mg a day.
Percent Daily Value – This value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. It is meant to tell you the percentage of a particular nutrient in your diet if you are eating 2,000 calories. In this example, you can see that you would be getting 10% of your carbohydrates for the day if you ate 2,000 calories.
The Ingredients on the Nutrition Label
The ingredients are important too! I would look at the first five ingredients at least. They are listed in order of weight – or how much is in the food. So, if sugar is listed FIRST – this food is mostly consisting of sugar. (Yikes!)
For example, my favorite KIND granola has OATS listed as its first ingredient. So, I know that there are more oats than anything else in it.
A little note on ingredients ending in -ose. If the ingredient ends in this suffix (-ose), then it’s a sugar. (Glucose, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, etc.)
Sugar can also be listed as high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, or dehydrated cane juice, among others. Be very weary of all the hidden sugars and their aliases!
I hope that this little lesson on nutrition labels has helped you. There is so much knowledge to be found in a label, and so much more we could dive into. I found once I just understood my portion sizes, I was able to log my foods more accurately. This in turn led to more success!
Like I said before, if you learn nothing else – learn how to understand those portion/serving sizes!!
If you have any questions about food labels, please reach out to me! I’d love to help!