Most of us know some basics of healthy eating: Opt for fresher foods, fruits and veggies, unrefined whole grains, lean meats, low fat dairy, etc. Stick away from fatty and sugary snacks that are low in nutrients but high in calories, avoid consuming empty calories like those in sugary drinks, and alcohol….
When you put it this way, healthy eating doesn’t sound all that hard or bad, am I right?! However, sometimes it’s not as simple as just eating what you think is healthy.
Just because let’s say a yogurt says low fat on the front of the container, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically an excellent choice. Sometimes, yogurts that are low in fat can still be very high in sugar.
That’s why being able to read a nutritional label can be oh so helpful. It can mean picking a yogurt that’s high in Calcium, protein, and low in fats and sugars, versus one that says it’s low in fat, but is also low in protein and calcium, and high in sugar. And that can make the difference in thinking you’re eating healthy, and actually eating healthy!
So let’s get started!! Reading a nutritional label can be done by making just a few quick comparisons between labels of similar products. Just read up on these quick steps below, and follow along with the chart below for reference... and you too, can snappily discern the healthy from unhealthy at the grocery store!
#1) Check the serving size!
Did you know that the content on nutritional labels is just for one serving of whatever is within, but with many products, there are often multiple servings within just one package?
Like one of those tall cans of Arizona Iced Tea- it's two servings. Isn’t that ridiculous? I mean you open the can, you’re going to drink it all at once.
So, if you’re planning on consuming more than one serving size- to get an accurate representation of how many calories, grams of proteins, carbs, fats, sugars, etc. you're really getting- you will need to multiply the entire nutritional label by that number (i.e. for two servings, it’s double the calories, double the sugars, double everything!).
#2) Check the calories.
Checking the calories can be helpful in determining how much this particular item is contributing to your daily nutrition. Most adults are recommended to eat 2000 calories, however you may require more or less calories depending on your needs.
Some foods can be very high in calories, but very low in nutritional content (i.e. few healthy fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, etc.). These foods will rack up your daily calories, without really making you full. Typically resulting in eating more calories than you should, which is linked to weight gain.
#3) Know Your Limits.
Total fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium, are always listed towards the top. These are items that you want to see lower values for. High consumption of these items is linked to all kinds of health complications, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Carbs can only be partially considered within the limited category. Unhealthy carbs are high in sugar. However, good carbs are typically high in fiber, and fiber is good for the digestive system, and it keeps you feeling fuller for longer, which is a huge plus. So limit sugar, maximize dietary fiber!
#4) Know What to Maximize.
Alright so we already covered that dietary fiber, which is part of the carb category is good for you, we want this to maximized in the diet!
You also want to make sure you are getting enough protein. If you’re eating a snack because you want to get some protein in for the day, check the protein content! I can’t highlight that enough.
For example, sometimes I eat veggie burgers in lieu of meat, and I am eating that with the intention of getting in some good protein. But many veggie burgers have 5 or less grams of protein, which I didn’t even know for quite some time. 5 grams of protein is not much, in comparison to a standard chicken breast which is usually in the neighborhood of 40 grams (yikes)!
After doing some intentional searching I have found some veggie burgers that have up to 21 grams of protein, which is decent. There are definitely good options out there, it just might require some intention to find a good version of what you’re looking for.
Finally, don’t forget those Vitamins and minerals at the bottom. Those can be really important. For example, a lot of people drink milk and eat yogurt for the Calcium. Milk is pretty standard across the board on Calcium levels, but yogurt can vary quite a bit! Check the label to see what you’re getting.
#5) Daily Values.
On the right side panel of the chart, daily percentages are provided. These can be very helpful if you know how to use them. Basically what these are, is it is telling you how much one serving of that particular product is contributing to your daily totals based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
So if your goal is 2,000 calories it’s helpful because throughout the day, you can easily add up your percentages to see if you’re getting enough or too much of each of the nutrients. So nice right?
Just remember that if you’re eating multiple servings of that item, you will need to multiply that Daily Value percentage by however many servings you’re eating.
Most people skip over this part, but what’s nice about it is that this section provides you with a guideline for how much of each category a person should be totaling daily. They provide this for a 2,000 calorie diet, as well as a 2,500 calorie diet. These will not vary from label to label, they are just there to provide a guideline for you to reference.
So, hopefully this guide has helped you enough so that next time you go through the grocery store you can give an educated quick glance at the things you think you’re eating intentionally to see if they really are healthy!
PK Fitness Program Coordinator, CPT, CES