Do you care about what you eat? Do you watch your fat or sugar intake? Reading nutrition labels might seem challenging because there’s so much to consider: fat, protein, calories, sugar…. But what’s important? We’ll show you how to figure out whether you picked the right stuff or whether you’re heading for a nutritional disaster.
Let’s imagine you crave pizza. You go to the supermarket and pick the ‘Four Cheese Pizza’ and the ‘Deluxe Combo Pizza’ and want to know which one is the better choice.
First, take a look at:
- The Serving Size: That’s the amount of food on which the nutrition label information
is based. It is usually listed as grams or cups. (If you find that confusing,
take a look underneath at the number of servings per container. It may help you
put the size into perspective.) Each pizza has one serving, which means that
all label information is based on the whole pizza.
The winner: Even.
- The Total Calories: That’s the amount of energy one serving supplies. An average woman requires roughly 1800 calories a day, an average man about 2500 (Calories also depend on muscle mass and metabolism, so it’s not that clear-cut). The Four Cheese supplies 530, the Deluxe 380 calories. If you’re looking to keep your calorie intake low, which would you pick?
- Calories From fat: Next to the calories you see Calories from Fat. Every gram of
fat supplies 9 calories, which tells you that almost half the calories of the
cheese pizza and about a fourth of the deluxe pizza’s calories come from fat.
The winner: The Deluxe Combo. The Four Cheese pizza provides more calories and a mega-dose of fat.
- Total Fat: Fat is listed as ‘Total Fat’ and then broken down into categories of
saturated (artery-clogging fat), unsaturated (healthy fat) and Transfat (fat
that has been artificially altered to increase the shelf life—like saturated
fat, it should be avoided). Unsaturated fats are often broken down further into
monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. The cheese pizza has more than twice
the fat of the deluxe and about 3x as much saturated fat.
The winner: The Deluxe Combo.
- Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a type of fat that comes only from animal products.
Too much of it increases your risk of heart disease, so keep it under 300 milligrams
The winner: Both are fairly low, so it’s too close to call.
- Sodium: This is the salt content of food. Given that the recommended limit of sodium
is 2400 mg (that’s about a teaspoon) per day, you’d be taking in half a day’s
worth (and half a teaspoon) by eating the cheese pizza.
The winner: The Deluxe Combo. Leave the cheese pizza in the freezer, unless you want to feel thirsty as well as bloated the next day.
- Total Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates come from starchy foods, vegetables, fruits and sugar. The carbohydrates on the food label are further broken down into Dietary Fiber and Sugars.
- Dietary Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods, found in foods like veggies, fruits and whole grains. The higher the fiber content, the more filling the food and the better for your digestion.
Sugars can come from both natural (e.g. fruit and milk sugar) and artificial
sources (e.g. high fructose corn syrup). Limit your sugar intake if you want
to maintain your laser-sharp concentration and waist line.
- The winner: Neither. Both are packed with simple carbs, but not too much fiber.
- Protein: Protein is made up of amino acids and is found in both animal foods (meat,
fish, milk, eggs) and some plant-based foods (grains, beans, nuts). The recommended
daily amount is based on your body weight: 0.36 grams per lb of body weight.
Don’t worry too much about protein; the National Research Council suggests that
most Americans eat enough of this nutrient. So unless you’re trying hard to increase
lean mass, there’s no need to increase your intake.
The winner: Even
- Vitamins & Minerals: These are considered ‘micronutrients’ and are always listed
as percentages of the daily recommended allowance (RDA). The idea is to get 100
percent of each nutrient daily to prevent deficiencies.
The winner: Though both are similar, compared to the number of calories, the Deluxe Combo is more nutrient dense. That means it gives you more nutrients (vitamins, minerals) with fewer calories. So the Deluxe wins.
- Percent Daily Values: These numbers never change; they’re listed on every label and tell you what the recommended amount for each nutrient is, given a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Use it for a quick check.
- Ingredient List: Beneath the Nutrition Facts, every food label has an ingredient list, which shows all the ingredients in the item listed from greatest amount to smallest amount. For example, here’s what’s in the cheese pizza:
This pizza contains mostly cheese and flour, so it’s likely to be in calories, fat
and carbohydrates. Although wheat flour is a good start, also look for products
enriched, meaning they have nutrients added to the ingredients. Also, don’t avoid the veggies. Adding veggies to a pizza makes for a healthier, tasty meal!!
And if you happen to see an ingredient list that sounds more like your chemistry text book than food, think twice about buying it. You don’t want to experiment with your health. See if there is another option that is better for you.
So, who’s the winner here? Hopefully the Deluxe landed in your shopping basket. If the cheese pizza is in there too, share it with your friends to keep from racking up the calories!