Understanding Nutrition Labels Is Important for a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet requires making informed choices about food, and nutrition facts labels contain information needed to make those choices. The following information may help you better understand nutrition labels and make your food shopping smarter and easier.

Sections of the Label

1. Serving Size: The first section of the nutrition facts label shows the number of servings in the package (servings per container) and the serving size. Serving sizes are standardized in familiar units – such as cups, pieces, or ounces – followed by the same amounts in metric measurements.

However, the serving size listed is the amount that people usually eat or drink. It is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink. For example, if the label on a 23-ounce can of soup shows 130 calories per serving, you need to know how many servings the can contains. If it contains three servings – and you want to limit calories from that item to 260 – then the correct portion size is two servings or less. Click here for a guide to portion control.

2. Calories: The second section shows how much energy, measured in calories, that you get from a single serving. For example, if a 19-ounce can of soup has 120 calories per serving, and the label indicates that one serving equals one cup, then the entire can contains about 284 calories (19 ounces divided by 8 ounces in a cup equals 2.37 cups, times 120 calories per cup).

Calories are the energy your body needs to function, but extra calories are stored as fat. That’s why keeping tabs on the number of calories you take in and how many calories your body burns can help you achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends 2,000 calories per day for most people who are watching their calories. Your calorie intake may need to be higher or lower depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity.

Another important part of watching calories is in knowing what kind of calories you are consuming. The 230 calories you get from a 16-ounce soft drink are from sugar, while 200 calories from a single ounce of cashew nuts can provide protein, healthy fat, fiber, and other nutrients.

3. Nutrients: The third section lists the main nutrients that affect your health – nutrients that experts say you should get more of or less of, on average.

Research suggests that most Americans do not get the recommended amount of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Dietary fiber can increase the frequency of bowel movements, lower blood sugar (glucose) and cholesterol levels, and reduce calorie intake. Diets higher in vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium may reduce your risk of developing brittle bones (osteoporosis), low iron levels (anemia), and high blood pressure. Protein provides energy, helps stabilize glucose levels, may help you feel full longer between meals. Protein can come from a variety of sources, including animals and plant-based foods.

There are some nutrients you should try to limit. Saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars may be associated with harmful health effects. Too much saturated fat and sodium can increase your risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure. Too much added sugar can raise blood glucose levels and make it harder to limit calories.

Total Sugars and Added Sugars

Total sugars” includes sugars that are found naturally in many nutritious foods and drinks (such as milk and fruit), plus any sugars that are added to the product. There is no %DV (percent daily value) for total sugars, because no recommendation has been made for the total amount of sugar to eat in a day.

“Added sugars” includes sugars that are added during processing (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices sugars, and sugars from syrups or honey added to the product. Extra calories from added sugars can make it hard to take in enough important nutrients while still limiting calories.

Too Much or Not Enough?

The %DV is an important detail in nutrition information. This shows how much a nutrient in a serving of the food or beverage contributes to a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.

For the average person, 5%DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, and 20%DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high. As a general rule, it’s better to choose foods that are higher in %DV for fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, while choosing foods that are lower in %DV for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

One thing to note: The %DV information does not account for the special needs of older adults. In general, older adults eat more than the recommended amounts of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars, and they do not get the recommended amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. Click here to learn more about nutrients and healthy aging.

Doing the Math

Because you need to know how the nutrition information applies to larger amounts of a particular food product, the nutrition facts label has a second column. This column does the math for you by showing nutrition information for products that contain more than one serving in the package or container. The second column can also offer information on products that are normally eaten with another ingredient, such as cereal and milk. The first column shows the cereal alone; the second column shows the cereal plus the milk.

Another use of the second column is with products that require further preparation, such as cake mixes. For these items, the first column reads “As packaged” and the second column reads “As prepared”, to show what the package itself contains vs. what the final product contains once prepared with other ingredients.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

It’s important to note that nutritional needs vary from person to person. How your body burns calories and stores fat, your body type, and your lifestyle habits affect the amounts and types of nutrients you should eat. The basic guidelines for determining nutritional needs are based on estimates that have been shown to help the majority of people. For more detailed or customized information, talk to your primary care doctor or a registered dietitian.

SOURCE: National Institutes of Health

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