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Understanding nutrition facts on food labels

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Food labels explained

Understanding nutrition facts on food labels is essential to making healthier food choices. Now's the time to start changing the way you look at food, and it begins with the food label.

Woman reading food label it supermarket

Nutrition facts on food labels can be quite complicated to decipher. How many grams of fat are acceptable per serving? What does percent daily value mean? Is serving size important? What does "a good source of fiber" actually mean? It's time to get those questions and more answered with this guide to understanding nutrition facts on food labels.

Serving size and calories

The first thing you want to look at is the serving size, servings per container and calories per serving. This is extremely important in preventing yourself from overeating. If you know you eat a whole bag of potato chips in one sitting, and you see that one bag has well over 1,000 calories, it'll make you think twice about purchasing them.

From the FDA, here's a general guide to calories:

  • 40 calories is considered "low"
  • 100 calories is "moderate"
  • 400 calories or more is "high"

The average person needs between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day. Yours may be higher or lower depending on your weight and exercise level. All three meals should be weighted the same, as should your snacks. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories per day, you should be having roughly 600 calories for each meal and two 100-calories snacks. Or, simply eat six small meals per day each consisting of the same number of calories.

What to limit and what to load up on

Here is what to limit:

  • Fat. This is specifically saturated fat and trans fat. You should have no more than 78 grams per day (if you're trying to lose weight, no more than 35 grams).
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is linked to heart disease. Limit your intake to no more than 200 mg per day. Keep in mind that one egg has 180 mg.
  • Sodium. Sodium makes your body hold on to excess water. The American Heart Association advices no more than 2,000 mg per day.
  • Sugars. We should only be eating 30 grams of sugar per day, but most of us consume four times this much! Sugar weakens your immune system, causes tooth decay and contributes to diseases. Try to steer clear of this as often as possible.

And here's what you should be loading up on:

  • Fiber. Women need 25 grams per day and men need 38 grams per day. Most of us never get the required amount. According to the AHA, "high fiber" is 5 grams or more per serving and a "good source of fiber" is between 2.5 and 4.9 grams.
  • Vitamins and minerals. These are listed at the bottom of food labels and are followed by a percentage. That is the percent daily value — or the daily percentage you'll get from that food. Each day, you need 100 percent vitamins and minerals.

Ingredients

Finally, take a quick look at the ingredients the food contains. Do your best to avoid high fructose corn syrup (a fancy word for sugar), hydrogenated and refined oils, MSG and artificial sweeteners and dyes. None of these ingredients are healthy or natural and will cause more harm than good to your body.

More on nutrition facts

4 Food label myths debunked
The top 10 scariest food facts
5 Misleading claims on food labels

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