It’s information overload when looking at nutrition labels.
While reading labels shouldn’t be your main tool for creating a healthy diet, being armed with the right info can help you make better choices.
You don’t need to understand the entire label. It all boils down to a few key elements.
Label serving sizes can be totally unrealistic, and that changes everything.
If you look at the top of the label on your favorite ice cream, you’ll likely see the serving size say “1/2 cup.”
I don’t know about you, but when I eat ice cream, I fill the bowl.
That means I’m eating more like 2 cups of ice cream. Which means if I want accurate information, I have to multiply every number on the label by 4.
150 calories becomes 600 real quick.
Serving sizes will be changing by 2020 to supposedly be more accurate (the serving size on ice cream will go up to 2/3 cup), but only you know what you’ll actually consume, so factor that in before you look at anything else on the label.
Calorie counting isn’t our go-to method for weight loss (see our alternative here), but it’s still good to have an idea of what calories represent for your diet.
Before you can gauge if you’re on track, you need to calculate your ideal calories – this calorie calculator from Precision Nutrition (where I got my coaching certification) can help.
Then divide the total calories by the number of meals you typically eat in a day and you have a goal range for each meal.
Knowing this number is helpful to see if the food you’re looking at is causing you to eat too much or too little at any given meal. Don’t forget about extra things you may add to a boxed item (butter, milk, oil, etc.).
To help you lose weight (or prevent gaining it), it helps to know what your food consists of.
There are three major macros: carbs, protein, and fats.
You want to prioritize protein. Every meal you eat should have around 20-30g of protein for women, 40-60g for men. If a label says an item has 4g, you either need to add a protein to that meal, or find another meal.
Carbs and fat are both an important part of a balanced meal, too, but they’re easier to overdo it. Women should stick to around 20-30g of carbs and 7-12g of fat at each meal (men: 40-60g carbs, 15-25g fat).
Much more or less can get you in trouble.
Sugar isn’t bad, but too much sugar is a common bad habit.
Most packaged foods contain added sugar, and it can be hard to know what is a reasonable amount, or what type of sugar is ok or not ok.
My simple advice is to avoid obvious high sugar items when possible (based solely on what’s realistic for you).
If you prioritize protein and veggies, and consequently eat a moderate amount of carbs and fats, an occasional item with added sugar won’t affect your hard work.
If you want to see the big picture of healthy eating, it lies in the ingredients.
Not the specific ingredients, per se — it’s the number of ingredients that says a lot about a food item.
A simple example of this is the difference between raw and canned chicken. Raw chicken won’t even have an ingredients list. It’s just chicken.
Canned chicken could easily have 7 ingredients listed. None of those ingredients are necessarily “bad” in and of themselves, but it’s an indicator of how processed that product is.
You want to shoot for unprocessed as much as possible. If an item has an ingredients list as long as a doctoral thesis, there’s probably a better choice available.
What to Ignore
Specifically: the marketing on the front. This isn’t part of the actual food label, but it feels like it is.
I’ve been sucked in by marketing — recently, in fact.
I bought something that said “all natural” or “no added sugar” (maybe both). After I ate some, I read the nutrition label and ingredients.
I felt duped.
It had all kinds of “extras” in it. I knew eating it this one time wasn’t going to break my whole diet, but it wasn’t at all what I typically would have chosen.
The FDA is very specific about what foods qualify for certain marketing terms, but this doesn’t represent the food as a whole.
Be sure to fact check the marketing with the label and ingredients on the back.
Most other things on a nutrition label you don’t need to dig into unless you have specific health issues you’re working on with your doctor.
Micronutrients like sodium, iron, calcium, etc. and all the vitamins should be handled on an individual level.
If you’re just looking to eat a balanced diet or lose some weight, pay attention to how much you serve yourself (which correlates to overall calories and macronutrients), and limit high sugar and highly processed foods.
Those are the basics, and that’s where you should start.