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Nutrition Facts Label 101: Do You Know What You’re Eating?

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By: Erin Coleman, B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.,

Writer at The Fit Father Project

nutrition facts label

Do you look at the nutrition facts label when you're at the grocery store? If so, do you know what you should really be looking for?

You've probably looked at thousands of nutrition facts labels in your lifetime.

They shouldn't be ignored — understanding and using them to make informed food choices is vital to optimal health and wellness.

You may think you're buying good, quality products, but is that “health food” really healthy?

Learn the mistakes people make when viewing nutrition facts labels so you know exactly what you're eating!

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What Are Nutrition Facts Labels?

Nutrition facts labels are required by the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) for packaged foods and drinks.

The labels provide important information pertaining to the calorie, fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamin, and mineral content of your favorite foods.

Food labels let you know how much sodium, sugar, and fiber are present in each serving of packaged foods and drinks.

This in turn helps you make informed decisions about the items you and your family consume regularly.

Key Components of Nutrition Facts Labels

The main components of nutrition facts labels, and ways to evaluate each section to optimize food choices, are as follows:

Serving Size

On the top of nutrition facts labels, you can view the serving size for food items in question.

Serving size on a food label might be 1 cup, 2 tablespoons, 1 package, or something similar.

You can see how many total serving sizes are present in an entire package, can, or bottle.

Keep portion sizes in mind when viewing entire nutrition facts labels, and be aware of how much food you consume.

Calories

The next part of a food label shows the number of calories present in each serving of food.

The amount of calories you consume from foods depends on the portion size you choose.

If you're wondering how many calories you should consume daily, it depends on your age, gender, activity level, and metabolism.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the following calorie recommendations for men and women can help you meet nutritional needs without going overboard:

Men

  • Ages 19-20: 2,600-3,000 calories
  • Ages 21-35: 2,400-3,000 calories
  • Ages 36-40: 2,400-2,800 calories
  • Ages 41-55: 2,200-2,800 calories
  • Ages 56-60: 2,200-2,600 calories
  • Ages 61-75: 2,000-2,600 calories
  • Ages 76 and up: 2,000-2,400 calories

Women

  • Ages 19-25: 2,000-2,400 calories
  • Ages 26-30: 1,800-2,400 calories
  • Ages 31-50: 1,800-2,200 calories
  • Ages 51-60: 1,600-2,200 calories
  • Ages 61 and up: 1,600-2,000 calories

If weight loss is your goal, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) offers the following weight-loss calorie guidelines:

  • Men: 1,500-1,800 calories daily
  • Women: 1,200-1,500 calories per day

Consuming 500-1,000 fewer calories than your usual intake can help you drop 1-2 pounds weekly, which is an effective, safe rate of weight loss for many adults.

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Dietary Fat

Dietary fat grams are also listed on each nutrition facts label.

It's important to pay attention to total fat grams, saturated fat, and grams of trans fat.

Unsaturated fat, which isn't listed on nutrition facts labels, is actually the healthiest type of fat.

You can determine the number of unsaturated fat grams in a serving of packaged food by subtracting grams of saturated and trans fat from total fat grams.

Avoid trans-fat and limit saturated fat as much as possible.

The Institute of Medicine recommends you consume 20-35% of your total daily calories from fat.

This equates to eating 44-78 grams of total fat when consuming 2,000 calories per day.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting saturated fat to 13 grams daily when eating 2,000 calories per day.

Saturated fat is mainly present in high-fat meats and full-fat dairy foods.

Instead, choose fat found in olive oil, canola oil, other plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocados, hummus, olives, or fish oil.

Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is also listed on nutrition facts labels.

Your body needs and produces its own cholesterol, but ingesting too much of it from foods may increase your risk of heart problems.

Cholesterol guidelines include consuming less than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily when trying to lower blood cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is present in animal-based foods like eggs, meats, seafood, and full-fat dairy foods.

Reducing your intake of saturated fat and increasing dietary fiber are excellent ways to lower high blood cholesterol naturally.

Sodium

Sodium is another nutrient listed on nutrition facts labels. Ingesting too much sodium on a regular basis puts you at risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Sodium gets added to many types of canned and prepackaged foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day to maintain optimal health and wellness.

If you have high blood pressure, your doctor might recommend you consume even less sodium.

Carbohydrates

The number of grams of carbohydrates in packaged foods is also listed on nutrition facts labels.

Total grams of carbohydrates include complex carbohydrates, fiber, total sugar, and grams of added sugar.

Total Carbohydrates

The Institute of Medicine recommends adults consume 45-65% of their total calories from carbohydrates.

This equates to 225-325 grams of carbs per day when eating 2,000 calories daily.

Healthy carbohydrates to consider adding to daily meal plans include whole grains, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, lentils, other legumes, fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, milk, and yogurt.

If you opt for yogurt, choose plain yogurt without added sugar when possible.

While starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, corn, peas, dried beans, etc.) are high in carbohydrates and often contain 15 grams of carbs or more per serving, non-starchy vegetables (green beans, leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.) usually provide just 5 grams of carbs or less in each serving.

Fiber

Fiber is the roughage part of plant-based foods.

Your body doesn't fully break fiber down or digest it prior to excretion, but fiber helps fill you up nonetheless.

Fiber-rich foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

The number of grams of fiber men and women should consume daily is:

  • Men: 30-38 grams of fiber per day
  • Women: 21-25 grams of fiber daily

Eating plenty of fiber regularly helps you maintain optimal gut health, manage a healthy weight, keep cholesterol levels in check, and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

Sugar

Because many healthy foods contain natural sugar, the sugar listed on nutrition fact labels you should take note of is grams of added sugar.

Natural sugars are present in fruits, vegetables, milk products, and some whole grains.

Added sugar is the amount of refined sugar added to foods during the manufacturing process.

Added sugar is present in soda, sweet tea, lemonade, other sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, and other highly processed foods.

The sugar value (in grams) listed on food labels shows the amount of total sugar and added sugar present in each portion of the food in question.

Aim to consume foods with little to no added sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends adults consume no more than the following:

  • Men: 36 grams of added sugar daily
  • Women: 25 grams of added sugar per day

As a reference, one 12-ounce can of soda contains about 32 grams of added sugar.

This equates to more than the daily allotment for women and nearly the entire daily added sugar allotment for men.

Use caution with sugar-sweetened beverages and other sweet treats, as it's easy to exceed added sugar recommendations — especially if you forget to look at nutrition facts labels.

Learn how to stop sugar addiction and what sugar REALLY does to your body!

 

Protein

Protein is a key nutrient you require regularly to sustain just about every structure and function within the body.

Protein is listed in grams on nutrition facts labels.

Foods rich in protein include lean meats, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, low-fat milk, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, reduced-fat cheese, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, and seitan.

The Institute of Medicine's recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams daily for men.

This is a minimum daily requirement, as consuming more protein than the RDA helps you maintain or build lean mass, feel full longer, and maintain a healthy weight, skin, nails, bones, teeth, and hair.

Evaluate nutrition facts labels to determine how many grams of protein per serving are present in some of your favorite foods!

Find out how much protein you really need and calculate your daily protein intake!

 

Vitamins and Minerals

Like macronutrients, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are also present on nutrition facts labels.

The amounts of each, with corresponding percent daily values, are listed on food labels too.

If you'd like to know how much of each vitamin and mineral you should consume daily, check out the National Institutes of Health Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) tables.

Percent daily values listed on nutrition facts labels are based on a 2,000-calorie daily allotment.

For example, if you eat a food that contains 25% DV for vitamin D, that means you're fulfilling 25% of your daily needs for vitamin D if you consume 2,000 calories per day.

Your personalized vitamin D needs might be more or less than this, as DVs listed on nutrition facts labels simply follow general guidelines.

Common Food Label Mistakes

Common mistakes people make when reading, or ignoring, food labels include:

Ignoring Serving Sizes

Forgetting or ignoring serving sizes on nutrition facts labels is a common mistake many people make.

Even if you know the serving size of the food you're eating, pay attention to how of each food or drink you actually consume — especially if the food in question is a high-calorie item.

Forgetting About Sodium

Sodium is an often-neglected component of nutrition labels, unless your doctor or dietitian has advised you to reduce sodium intakes because of high blood pressure or heart disease.

Certain foods, including some types of soups, can contain nearly 800 milligrams of sodium (or more) in each portion.

If you need to cut back on sodium, use the following guidelines when reading nutrition fact label claims:

  • Sodium-free: less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium: 35 milligrams of sodium or less per serving
  • Low sodium: 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving
  • Reduced sodium: at least 25% less sodium than the regular product
  • Light in sodium: at least 50% less sodium than the regular product
  • No-salt-added: no salt added during processing, but the product may not be salt-free (unless stated otherwise)

If your doctor told you to follow a lower-sodium diet, which might consist of sodium intakes between 1,500 milligrams and 2,300 milligrams per day, make sure to evaluate nutrition facts labels carefully and avoid table salt whenever possible.

One teaspoon of table salt equates to 2,300 mg of sodium.

Canned foods, processed meats, and highly processed or prepackaged meals are often high-sodium foods.

Learn more about how to read nutrition labels properly and what nutrition facts REALLY mean.

 

Thinking All Sugar is Bad

As you know, not all sugar is bad for you.

While looking at total sugar intake is important, the value you should be most concerned about is the added sugar content listed on nutrition facts labels.

Don't be afraid to consume plenty of natural sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and milk products.

Avoid sweets, sodas, and other sugar-sweetened products whenever possible.

Forgetting About Liquid Calories

Don't forget to include calories, total carbs, added sugar, and protein or fat grams in daily tallies when consuming drinks, particularly sugar-sweetened beverages.

Studies show that soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks appear to increase your risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Choose water or nutrient-dense beverages like milk, fruit smoothies, and low-sugar protein shakes instead!

Find out what the 6 healthiest drinks are and what you should drink more of!

 

Not Reading Labels While Shopping

It takes time to read nutrition labels, especially when you're grocery shopping and in a hurry.

However, putting foods into your shopping cart without reading food labels means you risk choosing products that aren't a good match for you and your health-conscious family.

Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods whenever possible.

Prepare healthy meals at home if you can find the time and evaluate nutrition information on packaged foods to optimize you and your family's health, wellness, and overall quality of life!

To learn more about nutritious eating tips and nutrition facts labels, or obtain unlimited muscle-building and fat-burning workouts, become a Fit Father Project member or just start with a free healthy meal plan and workout!

You can receive custom meal plans and workouts, weekly newsletters, online health coaching, a built-in social support network, and much more!

If you begin reading nutrition facts labels regularly and become a Fit Father Project member, a healthier life awaits you!

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Erin Coleman B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.

Writer at The Fit Father Project

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian with over 15 years of freelance writing experience.

She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and completed her dietetic internship at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Prior to beginning her career in medical content writing, Erin worked as Health Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Internal Medicine.

Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s currently working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife, and a Mom to two beautiful children.

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on understanding nutrition facts labels.

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