By Liza Baker
As a health coach, I encourage my clients to learn to cook from scratch using whole, close-to-the-source foods as much as possible, and yet I realize that most of us do buy at least some processed foods.
If food labels look like Greek to you, you are not alone! Not to worry: if you don’t get bogged down in what has been called “nutritionism,” where you count every gram, calorie, and percentage point until you make yourself crazy, there are just a very few things you need to be able to decipher.
In addition to an ingredient list, packaged foods are required by law to have a nutrition facts label, which can be very confusing unless you know what to look for.
My recommendation is that you NOT get caught up in nutritionism; instead, focus on whole food ingredients, cook them at home, and moderate your portion size more often than not. If you want to learn more about portion control, check out Dr. Seuss is in the house.
The first two pieces of information you come to are “servings per container” (how many servings are in 1 package) and “serving size.”
The serving size is what the food manufacturer has determined is an appropriate serving for an adult who eats about 2,000 calories a day. (As a reference, most reasonably active women eat about 1,800 per day; most restrictive diet plans ask us to cut that to 1,200–1,500 per day, and most men and more active women eat in the 2,000+ range when they are maintaining their current weight.)
Did you know that a serving of dry cereal is usually in the range of 2/3–1 cup? Or that a 12-oz box of dry pasta is meant to serve 6 people? Think about your average teenage boy sitting down to breakfast. I know quite a few who eat half a box of cereal plus a half gallon of milk for breakfast, then down the rest for an after-school snack! And between the 2 of them, my husband and son can easily polish off a box of pasta for dinner….
This section tells you how many calories are in one serving (the serving size on the package, not the teenage boy concept of a portion).
Macronutrients—macro for “big” because we need a relatively large amount of them compared to the micronutrients we’ll get to further down—are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates: these give us energy, which we measure in calories.
In this section, you’ll find the amount of proteins, fats, and carbs in the food given in grams, which doesn’t mean much to us Americans, so there’s also a “percent daily value,” which tells you that if you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, you’re getting that much of the total amount you need. (Interestingly, the government has declined to indicate how much protein we should be getting, but they do claim to know how many grams of fat and carbs we should eat?)
The newest version of the label requires that added sugars be listed separately, so if you’re trying to avoid added sugar, you can quickly see whether the sugar in this food is part of the ingredients (natural sugars are found in just about every food, from fruits to veggies to dairy, grains, and even meat). Ideally a food should contain no added sugars unless it’s a dessert (that’s right—most yogurt and dry cereals and many alternative milks don’t pass this test).
Also in this section of the label are the micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—so called because we need them only in tiny amounts … and we can’t be healthy without them.
Micronutrients help us use proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other micronutrients efficiently to make the building blocks of our bodies—bones, blood, muscles, hormones, etc.—and regulate all our bodily systems and functions.
The truth about vitamins and minerals is that we still know very little about how much of each one we need because we are all unique individuals, and new ones are constantly being discovered: the percent daily values here are estimates.
The good news? Eating whole foods is the best way to get what you need: you can take a supplement for insurance purposes, but the vitamins and minerals in whole foods have been shown to be more bioavailable than those in supplements, which means that they are more easily absorbed into your body.
And—because let’s face it, Mother Nature is magical—in most whole foods, vitamins and minerals that must be paired together to work most efficiently often occur in the same food.
- Cholesterol: there was a time when cholesterol was considered to be the great evil: eggs were ostracized as was red meat. In recent years, there have been studies that indicate cholesterol that we ingest is not always related to cholesterol that our body makes. Do your own research and experimentation on this topic—some individuals are more sensitive to dietary cholesterol than others.
- Sodium: if you’re cooking from scratch using whole ingredients, you don’t really need to worry about salting your food in the kitchen or at the table unless you have high blood pressure or sodium sensitivity; however, most processed foods have tons of sodium—so if you’re sodium-sensitive, skip adding salt (or skip the processed food entirely!)
- Fiber: this is an ingredient that most Americans get way too little of. The best way to get it? Eating whole foods—veggies, fruits, whole grains, and beans—rather than foods that have fiber added just to make nutrition claims.
So how reliable are nutrition labels? If a company has to put one on, what’s to stop them from making this stuff up?
Here’s a little math problem for you the next time you look at a label, and it can often be a good litmus test for the rest of the information:
- Multiply total fat grams by 9;
- Multiply total carbohydrate grams by 4;
- Multiply total protein grams by 4;
- Add a+b+c: you should have a number very close to the number of calories per serving.
If the numbers don’t add up even after taking rounding into consideration, (which often happens on imported foods because sometimes labeling information can be made up just to meet US law), be suspicious of the rest of the information on the label…and maybe consider not buying the food after all.
It’s good to know how to read a nutrition label—it’s like learning the basics of a foreign language: you now know how to ask where the bathroom is!
I hope your main takeaway is that if you focus on whole foods cooked from scratch and eaten in moderation, you will probably be able to get along just fine without reading the labels and without counting grams, ounces, calories, etc.
And remember that the information on this label is just a guideline: it’s meeting the law by being there, but it’s not necessarily the law of how you should eat.
Liza is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ in landing the starring actress Oscar for their lives after too many years of playing the best supporting actress in everyone else’s. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor, MI and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at https://simply-healthcoaching.com and join her membership site, (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, at https://is.gd/secretsisterhood.