From childhood to adulthood and every stage in between, good nutrition is important. Eating a balanced diet can help you maintain your health, strength, and even reduce the risk of certain diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. While many people recognize the importance of making healthy food choices, nutrition can seem complicated – especially at the grocery store. Having hundreds of food options can make the decision process overwhelming. Luckily, learning how to read the FDA’s Nutrition Facts Label can help you make fast, informed decisions about what foods are right for you and your family.
Focus on the Key Nutritional Elements
All packaged foods and beverages in the U.S. feature a Nutrition Facts Label. Each label lists a variety of information, including serving size, calories, grams of fat, ingredients, nutrients, and the approximate daily value (%DV) for each nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet. To make quick decisions when choosing between food options, focus on reading the following sections of a nutrition label.
1. Scan Serving Size
First look to see how big one serving is, and then look at how many servings are in the package. All the nutrition information listed on the label is based on one serving size, which will be listed in a familiar measurement, e.g., pieces or cups. With every food item, ask yourself, “How many servings would I consume in one sitting?” Eating two servings will double the calories and nutrients. Eating three will triple the calories and nutrients, and so on.
Label Reading Tip: Individual packages often contain more than one serving, even small items like a bag of chips or bottle of soda. Before you buy, multiply the nutritional values by a realistic portion for you.
2. Check Calories
A calorie is a unit of measure for how much energy you will get from one serving of food. Check both the calories and calories from fat on the Nutrition Facts Label. This section is important for weight management, as there is a link between consuming too many calories and obesity. If you eat and drink more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.
Use the FDA’s General Guide to Calories:
Calories per Serving
400 or more
Label Reading Tip: When reading labels at the store, aim for balance when it comes to calories. If you buy a high-calorie food, balance it by selecting other items that are lower in calories.
3. Know Your Nutrients
All nutrients are not created equal. You should limit some nutrients and make sure you are getting enough of others. For example, consuming too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium is tied to an increased risk of some chronic diseases. When looking at labels, look for foods with lower levels of these nutrients.
On the other hand, nutrients like dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron may reduce the risk of some diseases. Choose food options rich in these nutrients to ensure you are getting enough.
Label Reading Tip: When comparing between two different brands of similar products, use the nutrients as a benchmark for decision making. For example, opt for the item with lower sodium or higher fiber.
Eat Healthy, Live Healthy
Though nutrition can seem complicated, the Nutrition Facts Label is a tool to help you better understand the nutritional value of packaged food. Scan each label for the serving size, calories, and nutrients. For ideas on healthy meals, see our Healthy Recipes Pinterest board. If you are interested in a dietary consultation or a personalized nutrition plan, make an appointment today with a St. Joseph Health primary care physician. If you are looking to lose weight, check out the HMR Program, offered at St. Joseph Health.
FDA - How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label