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20 Things You Should Know About Nutrition Labels

Starting at the Top

Starting at the Top

When looking at nutrition labels, start at the top and work your way down. The more pressing items, like calories, are at the top. The items that are less pressing, but still important, are on the bottom of the label.

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Serving Size

Serving Size

Nutrition labels break down the facts as they relate to one serving size. By law, serving sizes are supposed to reference how much people actually eat, not how much they should be eating. This should actually go to help the obesity epidemic. Instead of seeing that the serving size for your favorite soda is 1.5 per can, it will now be listed as simply 1 serving because, let’s be real, you’ll consume it in one. With this update in the serving size, you’ll see the facts for what you’re actually eating.

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Calories

Calories

Calories are simply a measurement of the energy stored in food. Because of this, we need a good number of calories in our diet. For example, men typically need about 2,500 calories, and women typically need around 2,000. That said, not all calories are equal. Junk food calories just aren’t the same as healthy food calories. This can lead to weight gain. Weight gain can also occur when someone consumes more calories than the energy they output. Remember to balance the number of calories you eat with the amount of activity you do and eat more if you’re more active.

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Nutrients to Avoid

Nutrients to Avoid

Just under calories, you’ll see total fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Under total fat, you’ll also see saturated fat and trans fat. These things are part of almost every diet, but you want to greatly limit your consumption of these nutrients.

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Total Fat

Total Fat

Fats are not always a bad thing. In fact, if your diet is clean enough, you’ll hardly have to worry about them. But for the rest of us normal people, look for foods where most of the fats are “monosaturated” or “polyunsaturated.” Your body can break these fats down, helping to lower cholesterol and your risk of heart disease.

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Trans Fat

Trans Fat

Trans fats are bad, and the FDA is requiring a reduction in the amount allowed. It occurs in some places naturally, but artificial trans fat is where the real problems come from. These are the fats that make fried foods so unhealthy. Keep an eye out for “partially hydrogenated oils” on your next shopping trip.

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Saturated Fat

Saturated Fat

Saturated fats are fats that are chemically full, meaning your body has trouble breaking them down. They occur naturally in fatty beef, butter, and other animal sources. It’s recommended that you get no more than 5-6% of your calories from saturated fats, or about 13 grams.

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Cholesterol

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a substance that is naturally produced by our livers. We get an excess amount of it when we eat animal-based foods like steak or eggs. This can be dangerous because bad cholesterol can stop up your arteries and cause strokes.  Aim for consuming as little as you possibly can.

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Sodium

Sodium

Sodium is good for us in small doses, but consuming large amounts of sodium can cause high blood pressure and heart disease. If you’re thinking you should put less salt on your food, think again. The FDA says most of our sodium is consumed when we eat packaged and restaurant foods. Only 11% comes from salting our foods. So, eat home cooked meals however you like, just don’t order takeout!

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Total Carbs

Total Carbs

Although we need carbohydrates in our diet, many people have to watch how much of them they consume. These are sources of energy for our bodies that can be broken down into sugars. Some people, like people with diabetes, have to watch out for carbs because they need to watch their blood sugar levels. Others need to watch carbs because excess carbs can result in weight gain.

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Dietary Fiber

Dietary Fiber

Dietary Fiber goes to balance out the other types of carbs because it cannot be digested by the body. Because of this, having a higher number of dietary fiber is not necessarily a bad thing. Just take the grams of Dietary Fiber and subtract it from the Total Carbs to see the “Effective Carbs,” amount. The Effective Carbs are what’s left over after fiber has balanced things out, and it gives better insight into how the carbs will affect you.

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Total Sugars

Total Sugars

The new nutrition labels will differentiate between Added Sugars and Total Sugars. Added sugars are added during processing. These are typically the sugars you’ll want to avoid. Plenty of healthy foods have sugar, though, like fruits or milk. The biggest sugar you’ll want to avoid is anything with high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and maltose.

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Starches

Starches

If you add up the fibers and sugars listed under the total carbs, you’ll often come up short. The rest of that number is found in starches. Starches are important for healthy diets. Just be sure to avoid loading your potato with butter!

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Good Nutrients

Good Nutrients

Just below the carbohydrate section is a list of things that you want to consume plenty of. These include protein, vitamins, and minerals, although not all vitamins and minerals are listed. Up till now, Vitamins A and C were required, along with Iron and Calcium. Vitamin A and C are being replaced by Vitamin D and potassium. Vitamins and minerals present in significant amounts are also listed. Keep in mind that anything listed as less than 5% is low.

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Protein

Protein

Protein is important for any diet, playing a huge role in our diet.  It’s found in both plant and animal substances. It’s recommended we get about 10-35% of our calories from protein.

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Vitamin A and C

Vitamin A and C

These were on the original label put out in 1993, but now, most Americans are getting plenty in their diet, so they are being taken off the label. This doesn’t mean you should stop eating your fruits and veggies! More than likely, with your current, healthy diet, you’re getting enough to not stress about it!

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Calcium

Calcium

Calcium is a mineral that keeps your bones healthy and strong, but it also helps maintain your nerves and blood flow! After age 30, your bones will stop adding to their calcium banks, so it’s important to get plenty while you’re young. After you get older, maintaining a healthy amount of calcium in your diet will prevent too much from getting pulled from your bones and teeth. 

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Iron

Iron

Iron is essential to your blood, muscle health, and your metabolism, along with some cell functions and hormones. Men and women need different amounts, with men ages 19-50 needing 8mg a day and women of the same age needing 18mg. Pregnant women need 27mg.

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Vitamin D and Potassium

Vitamin D and Potassium

The FDA noticed that Americans don’t get enough of Vitamin D and Potassium, so on the updated label, we’ll see them more clearly. Vitamin D is found in few foods, largely obtained through sunlight. Vitamin D also helps calcium maintain bone health, in addition to improving the immune system, regulating insulin levels, and supporting lung and heart health. Potassium helps your muscles, regulates bodily fluids, and counteracts some of the negative effects of sodium. On average, Americans consume about half of the potassium we need.

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Footnote

Footnote

The footnote at the bottom of the nutrition label specifies that the percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. These percentages will vary from person to person depending on how much they need to eat.

Ingredients

Ingredients

The last thing on the nutrition label is the ingredient list. A good rule of thumb is to keep the ingredient list to a number you can count on one hand, and steer clear of any big, fancy words you don’t know what are.