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Effectively Read Food Labels

Reading Nutrition Labels

There are and will continue to be the latest fads (whether they are backed by the latest research study or not) that will inevitably hit your radar. It’s sometimes difficult to wade through all of the hype – the opinions on what to eat, how much, and when. But one skill that will always come in handy is how to read nutrition labels on food.

Everyone has a different relationship with food, and to further complicate things, this relationship changes throughout our lifespan (and even week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day). Regardless of your approach, it’s good to be familiar with the basics of food labels to make informed decisions regarding your diet. Plus, research continues to show how important a nutritious diet can be and the impact it can have in various aspects of our life, including our mental health. 

Start at the top.

  • Check Serving Size, Calories, and Calories from Fat
      • Serving Size — Serving sizes are measurements, not recommendations on how much you should eat. It’s a guide that you can use to understand your own intake. Check out how many Servings per Container, and that will give you an idea of how many servings are in that package.
      • Calories and Calories from Fat — How many calories per serving, and how many of those calories come from fat. As a general rule, try to keep calories from fat in the 25 — 35% range.
  • Move down the label to look at…
      • Total Fat (what types of fat are in the food) — Not all fat is bad for you. It’s more important to look at what types of fats are in foods as opposed to the total fat grams. As a general rule, limit foods with these types of fats listed — saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fats (the rest of the grams noted in the total fat figure once you subtract out the number of grams of saturated and trans fats).
      • Remember that fat-free foods still have calories, and many have added sugar.
      • Cholesterol is essential for your cells and is an ingredient in building hormones. Only animal products contain cholesterol. So, for example, peanut butter does not have any cholesterol because it’s not from an animal! Recommended daily intake is around 300 milligrams.
      • Sodium — High levels of sodium (salt) lurk in many packaged and prepared foods (check out your favorite soup label next time!) Recommended daily intake is approximately 2,300 milligrams.
  • Move on to Carbohydrates
      • This is a big category and includes whole grains (healthy carbs), sugars, and other refined carbs (unhealthy carbs).
      • Pay attention to the sugar and fiber numbers here!
      • Sugars — Sugars go by many names, have little nutritional value, and show up in all types of surprising places (crackers, salad dressings, cereal). Look for words ending in “-ose” – glucose, dextrose, fructose (high-fructose corn syrup), and galactose. Added sugars can also be listed as syrups (high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup).
      • Other sugars could include honey, molasses, brown sugar, raw sugar, or a variety of naturally occurring and artificial sweeteners.
      • Recommended daily intake is approximately 25 grams or 6 teaspoons.
      • For a frame of reference, 1 can of soda run up to 40 grams, or about 10 teaspoons of sugar!
      • Fiber — Fiber helps you with digestion and helps keep you regular (bowel functioning). Recommended daily intake is between 21 and 35 grams. Look for bread, cereals, crackers, and such with 3 grams or more of fiber per serving!
  • On to Protein
      • Recommended daily intake is between 46 (sedentary female) and 56 (sedentary male) grams.
  • Now to Vitamins and Minerals
      • The vitamins and minerals listed indicate those that are found in the food naturally, any added ones (this is similar to adding protein powder or an immunity boost to your smoothie).
  • Glance at the Ingredients List
      • All products include a list of ingredients, and they must be listed in order of quantity. Look at where certain ingredients fall on that list to indicate their presence in a particular food.
  • Finally…Percent of Daily Value
    • These percentages on the right-hand side of the label are calculated based on a generic 2,000 calories per day metric. Remember that recommended caloric intake values vary depending on how active you are, your natural metabolism, and so on.
      1. As a general rule for % DV…
        1. 5% or less: Low
        2. 20% or more: High

This might seem like a lot, but take it slow. Being mindful of what we eat can have an incredible impact on our overall mental and physical health. And remember, quantity is as important as quality, and moderation is a key construct in this space. Start with one food item or with one category. By being mindful of your food intake, you will see not only the physical benefits but also the mental! 



*If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, request an appointment with one of our professional mental health providers at Diversus Health today. If you need immediate assistance, call our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.

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