How to Read Food Labels – Your Step-by-Step Guide

I had always been one of those who didn’t care about what’s written on the food packages until one day I read an article about what food manufacturers add to our food today. That shock propelled me to be more conscious about the food I put in my body. And mastering the skill of reading a food label is a great start. I’m not going to bore you with too much food sciences, and I simply will introduce some ideas to help you make a healthier decision next time you shop for groceries.

Why is it important to read food labels?

Understanding what’s in the food you eat is the key to achieving a healthy diet. Do you know that the diet determines 70 percent of your fitness results while the workout only makes up for 30 percent? Whether you are trying to gain muscle, lose weight, or want to have better gut health, it’s beneficial to know how to read food labels. They can be overwhelming to understand at first, but don’t worry, I’m going to guide you every step of the way. Let’s get started!

How to read food labels cover

What to look for?

  • Serving Size

The amount of the product typically consumed at once. 

  • Servings Per Container  

This shows the total number of servings in the entire food package or container. I was surprised to learn that a bag of crackers had triple the calories I assumed because I didn’t know I should multiple the serving number. In a single word, you need to multiply the “Amount Per Serving” by the “Servings Per Container” number.

  • Calories

If you are trying to lose weight but confused about the keto diet, paleo diet, or intermittent fasting, the best bet is to stick with creating a calorie deficit, which means your calorie intake should be less than your energy expenditure. A general guideline is to aim for 2000 calories a day. If you are wondering why 2000, you can check out this article by The Atlantic. But it’s important to adjust if you have a specific goal in mind. 

  • Total Fat

Saturated Fat: less than 20g. (Based on a 2000-calorie diet)

It used to be a popular thought that we should cut out saturated fat from our diet, but as Healthline explains, “no experimental evidence has ever directly linked saturated fat to heart disease.” A safer bet would be to try to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fats like vegetable oils, avocados, and nuts.

Trans Fat: ZERO.

No exceptions here. They are the bad guys for sure because trans fat is made in industrial processes and can increase the risks of heart diseases. According to FDA, June 18, 2018, was the deadline for US food companies and manufacturers to eliminate artificial sources of trans fat from food products.

The bottom line here is our body needs fat. Surprised? Me too, when I first found out my fat-free diet was not doing me any good. It’s because fats help us build cell membranes and absorb certain nutrients. If you are going to have fats, and you will, have the good ones.

How to read food labels
  • Sodium:

Less than 2300 mg and best less than 1500 mg.

According to CDC, sodium can add up quickly, but there’s no need to do sodium math every day, look for food with Sodium-free (<5 mg), Very low sodium (<35 mg), Low sodium (<140 mg) levels.

Several family members have seen an improvement over blood pressure control ever since we adopted a low-sodium diet in the last few years.

  • Cholesterol

Even though the amount of dietary cholesterol is not a health concern for most people anymore, it’s recommended to keep the dietary cholesterol intake as low as possible.

  • Total Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are often regarded as a bad thing, especially if you want to lose weight. But the truth is carbohydrates are the energy sources for your daily activities, and you need them to function well. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories, which is about 300g a day. What’s more important here is to pay attention to the Dietary Fiber and the Sugars section. It’s recommended that you focus on eating nutrient-dense food that has a lot of dietary fiber (about 25g for a 2000-calorie diet) since it helps with intestinal regularity and reduces the risk of developing heart diseases.

How to read food labels

Added Sugar is something you want to avoid as there are many reasons why they are bad for your health. Sugars have no percent Daily Value (%DV), but American Heart Association suggests that you should eat less than 25g of added sugar a day, and you can check out what 25g of added sugar looks like here.

  • Protein

Protein also doesn’t have %DV since it’s not a public health concern for adults and children over four years old. But FDA suggests a Daily Value of 50g protein per day based on a 2000 calorie diet. It’s essential that you adjust your protein intake according to your fitness goal.

  • The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

This is the percentage of a nutrient that the food contains on a 2000-calorie diet. It helps you do the math to track if your daily diet is healthy. For example, if you consume food with 80% of your daily recommended intake for fat, you probably should be mindful of consuming less of that for the rest of the day.

How to read food labels
  • Vitamins and minerals

Your body needs more than macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates to function well, which is why micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are also necessary to support your body. So try to choose foods with a higher %DV of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and iron.

What to do with food labels?

You might be thinking, great! Now I have to go through every step every time I eat? Not necessarily. Here are some rules for reading a food label.

  • Know your goals

It can be a lot of work to go through every part of a food label, instead, try to focus on the parts that are most important to achieving your goals.  For example, if you are trying to lose weight, then it’s a must to create a calorie deficit by calculating your calorie intake. If you are afraid of heart diseases, you may want to reduce your cholesterol and saturated fat intake. To all the bodybuilders out there, you should aim to consume protein-dense food more often.

How to read food labels
  • Don’t get obsessed with it.

If you are someone like me who are not trying to lose or gain weight, you don’t need to spend much time analyzing and calculating the content on the labels. What I usually do is to take a brief look at the calories to see if it’s reasonable. Then I would try to avoid food with high Trans Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium and stick with the nutrient-dense ones. These general guidelines and recommendations serve as an excellent guide.

  • Understand that the diet is not all

Even though what you eat can have a significant influence on your overall health. A healthy life is the result of many things such as proper workouts, good sleep, and a happy mood. So instead of obsessing with how much sugar you consumed today, why not incorporate this mindfulness into every part of your life?

At the end of the day, it’s not about becoming a nutritionist or someone who has perfect control over the everyday diet. It’s about making healthier food choices without even trying and reaching for the nutrient-dense food like it’s your instinct. When you achieve the moment when you don’t need a calculation to know what your energy needs are for the day, or you check the food labels after shopping and realize you can’t find the word “added sugar,” congratulations, you’ve made it!

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