Nutrition labels are found on the back of all food and beverage items. Whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are typically exceptions to this and don’t normally come with a nutrition label. When buying foods, it is very easy to only read what is on the front of the box or package. However, if you’re looking to transform your health, you’re going to need to turn over the food item and look at the nutrition label. In this guide, I’ll keep things easy and straight forward in order to help you learn how to read a nutrition label for a healthier lifestyle.
What Is A Nutrition Facts Label?
The US Food and Drug Administration (USDA) created food labels to help compare different food items using standard measurements and serving sizes that the “average” consumer typically eats or drinks.
Numbers on the Nutrition Label are typically in grams and are converted into a % based on Daily Value (DV). The DV is based on a daily dietary intake of 2,000 calories and is given as “general nutrition advice.” The goal of a Nutrition Label is to compare food items on a standardized scale.
However, you are not like the person next to you and may require different nutritional needs or have different health goals for weight loss. Therefore, you can utilize the Nutrition Label in a way that is in alignment with your health plans.
First, let’s dive in to the different components of the Nutrition Label so you can better decipher what each part contains.
What Do Serving Sizes On A Nutrition Label Mean?
Nutrition Fact Labels are broken down into a few components. In the picture below, the top blue portion tells you what quantity of food is being used to come up with all of the numbers on the label. For example, the item used in this picture was for a frozen lasagna. Therefore, 1 cup of frozen lasagna is what they’re considering to be a serving size.
If you have a food scale, you can also measure out the grams of what 1 cup would be: in this example, 1 cup of frozen lasagna is about 227g.
The next section in pink tells you how many calories is in 1 cup of frozen lasagna: 280.
Consuming very large servings can contribute to weight gain due to eating larger portions and more calories.
How Do You Calculate Calories From A Nutrition Label?
When you’re calculating calories, it is very important to know exactly how much food you’re actually consuming. Are you really only having 1 cup of lasagna? Or you having 2-3 cups? Again, if you have a food scale, you can always weigh your food (in grams to match this particular food label), and determine what multiple of a serving size you’re actually having.
Let’s say you don’t have a food scale, but you have measuring cups at home. You take the time to scoop the lasagna first into the measuring cup and then onto your plate. However, 1 cup doesn’t look like much to you so you end up serving yourself 2 cups of lasagna.
You now need to take all of the numbers on the Nutrition Label and multiply them by 2.
Therefore, the new Nutrition Facts Label would read:
- Calories = 560
- Total fat = 18g (24%)
- Saturated Fat 9g (46%)
- Trans Fat 0g
- Cholesterol 70g (24%)
- Sodium 1,700mg (74%)
- Total Carbohydrate 68g (24%)
- Dietary Fiber 8g (28%)
- Total Sugars 12g
- Protein 30g
If you look at the Serving Size part of the Nutrition Label (in blue), you’ll see that there are 4 servings per container. By having 2 cups of lasagna (or 2 servings), you would be consuming 50% of the package. If you had 4 cups of lasagna (or 4 servings), you would be consuming the entire package.
What Do I Need To Know About The Fat & Cholesterol Section Of A Food Label?
When evaluating the Nutrient Section of a food label, you’ll want to start by paying attention to the total number of grams of each item and the % Daily Value.
As a general rule of thumb, aim for %DV between 5-20%. I’ll give you exceptions to this rule in a bit.
When reading the Nutrition Label, pay attention to:
- Saturated Fat
- Trans Fat
Saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol – especially in the context of the Standard American Diet which contains highly processed foods!
Aim for < 10% of your DV from saturated fats.
Trans fat can also increase your risk of heart disease.
On a Nutrition Label, companies can label their food item as having “0g” of trans fat even if it contains up to 0.5grams. Don’t be fooled!!
NEVER consume foods with trans fat. Period. Even if it says 0 grams. If the words “Trans Fat” are even written on the Nutrition Label, put the food item down!
You can double check the ingredient list for sneaky ways that trans fat can creep into your food. Look for some of these ingredients:
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
Trans fats are found in baked goods, fried foods, snack foods, and margarine.
When it comes to cholesterol, aim for < 300mg per day, or < 200mg if you have heart disease.
How Much Sodium & Sugar Should I Look Out For?
The average American consumes ~3500mg of sodium a day; more than twice the amount recommended by the American Heart Association (1500mg).
By consuming so much sodium, you are increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity.
One Mcdonald’s quarter pounder with cheese contains 1150mg of sodium by itself! But don’t forget to add in the sodium from french fries, shakes, or any other condiments and sauces. That’s pretty much your entire day’s worth of sodium in one entree!
When it comes to sugar, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming < 10% of total calories from added sugar.
Let’s use the example of 2,000 calories / day.
Ensuring you are having < 10% added sugar in your diet would mean that you would have to eat (or drink) less than 200 calories from sugar / day.
What is 200 calories worth of sugar?
- 1 gram of sugar = 4 calories
- 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon
Therefore, you should have no more than 50g of added sugar per day (or 12.5 teaspoons of sugar).
Here’s a point worth emphasizing: I’ve been speaking on the topic of added sugar, not what sugars are naturally occurring in fruits or other food items.
Added sugars are the extra sweeteners in our foods that companies add to make them more palatable (ie: corn syrup, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, glucose etc.).
Be sure to read the Ingredients List at the bottom of the Nutrition Label to see what sugars are being added in!
If you haven’t read my blog post on Why Are Sugar Sweetened Beverages Bad For Me?, be sure to do so after finishing this blog post. I outline how many teaspoons of sugar are in sugar sweetened beverages (Hint: Minute Maid Lemonade has way more than the recommended daily intake of added sugar!!).
Let’s Expand On Added Sugars
I love talking about added sugars with my surgical patients. When I ask them what they have for breakfast, it is not uncommon for them to enjoy a big bowl of cereal with milk and orange juice.
When we calculate how much added sugar they are consuming first thing in the morning, they are usually shocked.
One of my patients outlined his typically morning breakfast:
- Raisin Bran cereal
- Based on the size of the bowl he was using, we estimated ~3 times the normal serving size
- Skim milk
- ~ 1.5 cups or 12 ounces
- Orange juice in a tall glass
- 12 ounces
Now let’s start adding up how much sugar he was consuming!
Sugar = 54g (based on 3 cups / 3 servings)
Sugar = 16g (based on 12 ounces / 1.5 servings)
Sugar = 33g (based on 12 ounces / 1.5 servings)
Total added sugar = 103 grams !!!
Remember: recommendations are to have < 50g of sugar for the entire day.
How Should I Approach Reading a Nutrition Label For Weight Loss?
If you’re a grocery shopper that tends to buy items that look or sound healthy, I’d like you to follow these steps to transform your habits into healthier, more informed behaviors:
- Turn the package over and read the Nutrition Label
- Start with the ingredients at the very bottom. How many are there? Can you pronounce them? Are there less than 10? (Ideally 5?)
- Look at the Calories
- Evaluate the Serving Size volume. Are you realistically going to eat 1/2 a cup? 1 slice of bread? 1 oz of cheese? Do you know how big or small these portions really are?
- If you’re unsure of what ounces, grams, or cups look like, I highly recommend purchasing an affordable food scale to give you perspective.
- Make sure there are no Trans Fats on the Nutrition Label
- Keep your Daily Value % in a safe range with fat, cholesterol, and sodium
- Shoot for high fiber foods / beverages that are lower in carbohydrates and added sugars. I personally shoot for < 10g of sugar (ideal <5g) per serving size.
- Remember- if you know you’ll be consuming 2, 3, or 4x the serving size listed on the Nutrition Label, you need to multiply every number by that factor!
I know it can be scary and intimidating making changes to the foods you’re used to buying at the grocery store and the comfort foods you’re used to having.
However, in my 12 Week Weight Management Program, I hold your hand and walk your through bite-size steps (pun intended!) of how to approach making small changes toward your diet that will lead to HUGE, long-lasting results.
Hear what Shannon D, had to say about her experience with the Program.
Patient Education: Nutrition: How To Read A Nutrition Facts Label. The Amaerican Academy of Family Physicians. Last Revised: August 22, 2017.
Phillip D. Levy and Aaron Brody: Hypertension. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice, Chapter 74, 1007-1020. e3
Catherine E Cioffi RD, Janet Figueroa MPH, and Jean A. Welsh PhD, MPH, Rn. Added Sugar Intake Among Pregnant Women in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Surgery 2003-2012. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2018-05-01, Volume 118, Issue 5, Pages 886-895. e1