Nutrition labels are tricky. They don’t technically lie, but they easily mislead. Here are some tips to deciphering a nutritional label. Once you break it down, it is super easy to understand the information. Let’s use this Mac&Cheese label, start at the top, and understand the information given.
(1) Serving Size/Servings Per Container
This is step number one because not every package of food = 1 serving. This is very important because most packages contain more than 1 serving, like this box of Mac & Cheese. Each serving is 1 cup of Mac & Cheese and the entire box contains TWO servings. Therefore, multiply every thing in the following categories (sugar, fat, protein, etc) by two. This is where manufacturers can mislead you to think that you are consuming a “healthier” item when really one serving size is such a small amount like 1/64 cup, which means the macronutrient amounts like sugar, fat, and protein are deceivingly low. Don’t be fooled!
(2) Calories Per Serving/Calories from Fat
Now that you know the proper serving size reference, all the following data will relate to that specific size/amount. Calories are a part of what I call the “Holy Trinity” which includes the three primary things our eyes go to immediately when reading a nutrition label: Calories, Fats, Sugar. Calories are important to many diets because they dictate how much energy we are consuming. It’s important to understand that Calories (kilocalories) are a measurement of energy in food. This Mac & Cheese has 250 Calories, 110 of which are from Fat. That’s almost 50% from fat. DAAAAAAANG. this is a major red FLAG because fat is recommended to be approximately 15-30% of total calories on a regular daily diet.
(3) Total Fat–Saturated, Polyunsaturated, Monounsaturated, and Trans fats
Holy Trinity item #2: Fat. We all look here because we automatically think eating fat will make us fat. But it’s not always true. Here, you see that 1 serving of Mac & Cheese has 12 grams of fat. That’s a lot considering on a 1500 and 2000 kcal daily diet for women and men, respectively, we should be getting a maximum of 50 grams or 65 grams of fat (women and men, respectively) per day. This one serving has between 20-25% of daily fat intake.
However, it’s super important to know what types of fat we are consuming because they all have different health effects on our bodies, negative or positive. Of the 12 grams of total fat, 3 grams are saturated and 3 grams are trans fats. Saturated fats are necessary but are the ones that contribute heavily to heart disease due to its association with cholesterol (generally foods with high saturated fat also have high levels of cholesterol). Trans fats are just a big fat NO-NO. We have all heard that they are bad but why do they have such a bad rep? It’s called a trans fat because it’s in reference to the configuration of the hydrogen atoms in the chain of carbon atoms in the fat. Due to this trans configuration, it makes the fat more stable and hence, less easily broken down by our bodies when consumed. That means that it can lead to these fats staying stored in our bodies and not reacting with the body to be broken down, used, or rid of. And did you know that if the levels of fats (most notoriously trans fats) are less than 0.5 grams, manufacturers don’t have to note it, even if it’s still present in such a small amount?! (Say what?!) You can find out if there are any trans fat included in your food even if it is listed here as 0 grams. In the ingredients list below all nutrition labels, you can identify trans fats if “Partially Hydrogenated Oil” is used. ALERT~!
Monounsaturated (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated (PUFA) fats refer to fats that have one or more carbon double bond in them. On a bigger picture, monounsaturated fats are famous are its health benefits such as lowering risk of cardiovascular disease by lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) as well the risk of certain cancers. Foods like nuts, avocados, canola oil, and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fats. This Mac & Cheese has minimal or zero grams of MUFA. Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into many categories but primarily we require omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA in a ratio of 1 to 3. However, we usually get about 1 to 12. Benefits of omega-3′s include a decrease in sudden death, irregular heartbeats, triglycerides, and blood clotting tendencies. Omega-6′s lowers LDL when replacing saturated fat in daily consumption. Foods that have Omega-3′s are certain fish, flaxseed, canola oil, soybean oil, and nuts. Foods that have Omega-6′s are vegetable oils.
In conjunction with moderate fat intake, cholesterol intake should be under 300 mg if you are a healthy individual. If you are sick, especially with a history of heart disease, cholesterol intake should be less than 200 mg. A lot of people give cholesterol a bad rep but cholesterol is necessary for normal nerve function! Our body produces cholesterol and we can eat cholesterol from our food. We reabsorb a portion of of our cholesterol in our intestines. That is why doctors and dietitians focus on reducing cholesterol intake to a moderate amount to limit the reabsorption of it into our blood stream. Another way to reduce reabsorption of cholesterol is eat lots of fiber (like oatmeal!) because fiber binds to cholesterol to effectively reduce cholesterol reabsorption and help protect the heart.
Salt is the primary identifier of sodium in our food. Simply put, we consume so much. Recommendations for sodium refer to consuming less than 1500 mg. There are benefits of eating lower sodium diets like reducing high blood pressure and heart disease. Think of it this way, we consume at least TWICE that recommended amount. Listen to Michelle Tanner when she says, “Cut-It-Out.”
Carbohydrates are so essential to our diet because it’s our primary energy source. Understandably, we consume about 50-60% of carbs. They come in many forms: simple carbs (fruits vegetables) and complex carbs (wheat products). Carbohydrate information is important primarily for diabetics who want to keep their intake consistent. A simple way of thinking of carbohydrates is that carb = sugar. Sugar = energy. DO NOT THINK THAT A CARB IS BAD! I silently and then vocally judge you. CARBS = SUGAR = ENERGY = LIFE.
(7) Dietary Fiber
There are so many heart healthy benefits to eating fiber. Recommendation: 25-30 grams a day. It helps you get fuller sooner, helps with weight loss and maintenance, and helps you stay regular too by bulking up your poop. That also helps with water regulation in your body and reduces cholesterol reabsorption. Foods that have LOTS of fiber are whole grains, oatmeal, fruits, and vegetables. There are supplements but as a rule of thumb: food > supplements. The Mac & Cheese above has ZERO dietary fibers most likely due to it being white pasta.
Gym rats worry SO much about protein (another blog entry for another day). But on a regular basis, we should get 0.8g/kg of our body weight. Approximately 15-20% of our diet. Generally, we eat about double amount of our body’s daily need for protein. It can be stored as energy but primarily, we just pee it out
Holy Trinity Item #3: Sugar. This is the toughest category to limit because it’s so hard to separate NATURAL sugar versus ADDED sugar. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy/dairy products all have natural sugar in them. It doesn’t make them bad! Remember, carbohydrates are sugars which are used as energy by our body. They are necessary. The tough part is that labels do not distinguish between natural and added sugar. Therefore, the American Heart Associate recommends 6 teaspoons (20g) for women and 9 teaspoons (36g) for men of ADDED SUGAR per day. This is addition to us consuming natural sugars like in dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Note that the sugar amount per Mac & Cheese serving is 5 grams. That’s most likely the milk or milk products that are in the “cheese” portion of the dish and a bit of added sugar for flavor and preservatives.
This section is right underneath the nutrition label and every ingredient is listed by weight. The first items are the heaviest and most added ingredient. Say no to partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) and high fructose corn syrup. Say yes to whole grains/flour, and fruit. This is where you can keep an eye out for added sugar!
So there you have it. All the information you ever needed to know about reading nutrition labels. holla if you have any questions!