“Looking at the nutrition facts panel without reading the ingredient list is like buying a home without going inside.”
I saw this posted on a friend’s social media feed and thought it was brilliant! Why? Because the nutrition facts panel only tells you part of the story. Let’s go inside and learn how to read a food label like a nutritionist!
Before we begin, here’s why it’s important to read a food label like a nutritionist. To illustrate this, let’s start with the house analogy: Maybe the yard is beautiful, the house is charming, the paint looks great, the shutters pop, but when you get inside, the plumbing doesn’t work, the floors are rotting, the kitchen needs a major rehab, and so on. Had you not done a little exploring, you could have wound up with a total flop!! The same is true with packaged food. If you don’t do a little exploring, you might wind up with a seemingly healthy product that is actually pretty crappy.
What the numbers mean
Before we dive in, it’s important to consider that all the percentages for nutrients are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In many cases, your needs may be different. Most women I work with don’t require this number of calories and some men don’t, either. It depends on a number of factors, such as how old you are, whether you’re looking to lose a little weight (or gain some), how active you are, your height, your build, and other things. The nutrition facts panel is a good guide to show you if something is high or low in a certain nutrient, and to provide some calorie awareness around standard portions, but I don’t think you need to get too caught up in the exact percentages. Here’s what you should keep an eye on:
Serving size. Zoom in on the serving size and take note of how many servings are in the container. The rest of the info (calories, sugar, fiber, etc.) is tied to the suggested serving size, so if you eat more or less, you can factor that in.
Sugar. At the moment, added sugar is a voluntary portion of a food label but total sugars are required on all. I encourage my clients to become aware of sugar because the average American consumes about 20 teaspoons a day, whereas women should have no more than 6 teaspoons, and men no more than 9. You probably don’t need me to tell you that added sugars can interfere with your weight goals, but in addition, they can mess you up in other ways. Over time, consuming too much added sugar can raise your risk of diabetes and heart disease, worsen skin problems (including acne and wrinkling), cause dental issues and more.
Note that the food label indicates sugar in grams; 4 g is approximately 1 tsp. of sugar. Don’t worry about all the calculations, but do try to keep tabs on added sugar by purchasing products that don’t have too much of it. Compare labels to look for products within a similar category that are lower in added sugars. For example, put two yogurts side by side to see which has the least added sugar. Then compare them to a plain version to get an even better sense of the added sugar amounts.
Fats, Fiber, and Protein.I’m generally in favor of getting these nutrients from whole food sources, whether that’s packaged food or fresh food. For protein and fiber, you can look at the label to see whether something is high or low in these macronutrients, but it’s more important to scan the ingredient list to determine the source. More on this below.
Side note on fats: I’m not concerned about the amount of plant-based, friendly fats in foods. They fill you up, decrease body-wide inflammation, and even have benefits to your weight and waistline. Most health authorities recommend limiting saturated fats, and you can find the amount of saturated fat on the food label.
Vitamins and minerals. Again, this will give you a sense of whether a product is high or low in a certain nutrient. The best way to meet your vitamin and mineral needs is to eat a variety of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, friendly fats, quality lean proteins, and dairy or a dairy alternative.
Sodiumis one mineral to mention since most Americans exceed our sodium needs, and most of the sodium we eat is in packaged foods (as well as restaurant meals). To read a food label like a nutritionist, take a peek at the sodium and look for products that don’t contain too much. You’ll be surprised to see sodium in cereals and breads, as well as commonly suspected sources, like deli meats and cheeses, soups, and other processed foods. When shopping for convenient foods, consider no salt added canned beans, lower sodium versions of marinara sauce, soups, dressings, and frozen entrees, and lightly salted nuts or unsalted nuts and snacks. One more pro nutritionist tip: Upping your potassium intake by embracing fruits and veggies (prime sources of this mineral) is a great way to offset the sodium in your diet.
Ingredients. To read a food label like a nutritionist, read the fine print!! Remember, this is like going on a tour of the house. Ingredients are listed in the order of predominance so you want to see whole food ingredients leading off.
Notice where and how often sugarshows up on the label (whether as agave, honey, maple syrup, cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, molasses, or another form). The higher it is on the list, and the more often it shows up, the more sugar the product contains.
For graincontaining foods, embrace those with whole grains (often indicated by the word wholefollowed by a grain, such as whole wheat or whole corn). If the first grain listed is enriched wheat, it indicates the product is primarily fluffy white flour—not whole grain. Other whole grains include oats, sorghum, brown rice, millet, and quinoa.
For protein, look for real sources, like chickpeas, edamame, tuna, chicken, milk, yogurt, and eggs. Whey protein and pea protein are fine sometimes but by and large, you want to be eating real food.
When it comes to fiber, you’re looking for fiber-rich ingredients, like beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Manufactured sources include inulin, soluble corn fiber, maltodextrin, and other ingredients that don’t sound quite like food. These tell you something about the product.
To read a food label (and eat) like a nutritionist, follow one easy rule of thumb: Prioritize products made with more whole foods than manufactured ingredients.