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How to read and understand a Nutrition Facts label

The Nutrition Facts label explains what is in the foods that we eat. It was designed to serve as the sole nutritional guide for most, if not every, pre-package food item sold in the United States. Unfortunately, understanding how to properly interpret the actual values are sometimes overlooked or often completely misunderstood.

On average, the nutritional daily values (DV) provided on the Nutrition Facts label are based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet (#14). So, if you are in your mid-thirties and weigh anywhere between 122 to 135 lbs, and are relatively physically fit, then this daily value may apply to you. Knowing your unique daily nutritional value (calories needed every day for energy) is a critical component in determining your diet; how much food you are (or are not) consuming, why you are always hungry and what foods are most economical (value wise).

Let’s start with #1, Serving Size: This simply means that the one container you are holding is one portion (Servings Per Container). Which means, if you eat the entire container, you have just consumed the one serving (and all of the numbers listed on the label). Now, if it had said “Servings Per Container 3,” and you ate the entire container — in one sitting — then you must multiply every-single-number by three — including the calories.

#2 Calories: calories measure the amount of energy that the food will provide once you eat it. If you need a total of 2,000 calories a day, then this food item will provide 140 of those 2,000 calories, and if you were to eat four of these and nothing else for the entire day, then you would be getting only 560 calories of your 2,000 daily requirement and chances are high that no one will want to be around you. Calculate your daily calories here.

#2 Calories from Fat: since calories are used for energy, unused calories (say, you sit on a couch all day) will be stored as fat. However, certain food items already contain fat calories, you eat it and it is immediately converted to fat. The metabolism of physically active people will first utilize these fat calories for energy (the body burns fat first). As Calories from Fat can vary, it is best to simply look at the value for Total Fat.

#3 Total Fat: without fat, food is either bland and tasteless or suspiciously too flavorful. Fat makes food taste good and in order for non-fat or low-fat foods to maintain a pleasant (read: marketable) taste, flavor needs to be added and most often what is added is sugar. There are many varieties of fat and not all are bad. Total fat is a combination of polyunsaturated (good), monounsaturated (good), trans and saturated fats.

#4 Saturated Fat: This kind of fat occurs naturally in foods and come mainly from meat and dairy. High levels of saturated fats are found in fried foods as well as some plant based oils (palm, coconut). It is recommended that we limit our daily intake of saturated fats to less than 150 calories a day (again, based on a 2,000 calorie diet).

#5 Trans Fat: added onto Nutrition Facts label in 2006, Trans Fat here refer to hydrogenated fats that are a result of processing unsaturated fats (it is manufactured). Trans fats are found in fast food, fried food and many baked goods.They increase the shelf life of foods and may actually make up more of the Total Fat content. You should avoid anything with this type of fat or “partially hydrogenated” among the top of the ingredients list (#15).

#6 Cholesterol: although cholesterol is present in most foods, it is naturally produced by the liver for the creation of vitamin D and digestion. Cholesterol primarily comes from animal products. Cholesterol can only travel through the body via the blood when it is combined with protein thus forming a lipoprotein. The confusion comes from these two types of cholesterol; LDL (low-density lipoproteins – bad) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins – good). Remember “L” for low and feeling “low” is bad. Consuming high cholesterol foods (content wise) increases your body’s production of LDL and too much LDL cholesterol is what causes future health problems.

#7 Sodium: primarily a preservative, these numbers can often be shockingly high. Unless you suffer from high blood pressure or are sodium sensitive (retain water), it is recommended that you keep your sodium intake to no more than 2,000 mg a day. If your “diet food” has close to that number, it might be a penny wise and a pound foolish. Throw it out.

#8 Potassium: if you suffer from muscle cramps, you might be lacking potassium. This key element is crucial to the efficient transportation of essential body fluids throughout the human body (including blood). Bananas, avocados, spinach are all high in potassium and this might explain why consuming a banana elevates our mood (blood transports oxygen to the brain).

#9 Total Carb.: represents the sum of all of the fiber and sugar in the food. The brouhaha surrounds this total amount. So, the problem will be foods that are high in sugar and low in fiber.

#10 Fiber: essential to losing weight and maintaing good health. Fiber consists of soluble and insoluble, both necessary to proper circulation and digestion (i.e.: pooping). Vegetables are high in fiber and if you consume at least 36g a day, you could actually lose weight. Read more about fiber.

#11 Sugars: no, not all sugars are bad for you. There are natural sugars from fruit (fructose) and milk (glactose and lactose). However, when natural sugar is “refined” all of the nutritional elements (sugar comes from plants) are removed. “Raw sugar” is simply already refined sugar prior to further processing. Essentially, what you are eating is sucrose, a carbohydrate that the body now has to use for energy. As it is devoid of any nutritional value, unused amounts of this useless substance are stored, converted into fat and quite possibly used for storage (of cancer cells).

#12 Protein: we need protein for cell production, digestion and muscle movement. It is an essential amino acid that our body needs for important functions and survival. It is a dietary requirement. It is recommended that you consume at least 50 grams (200 calories) of protein a day (body builders consume high amounts of proteins to replenish and repair torn muscle fibers). Read more about protein.

#13 Vitamins: Vitamins do not contain calories. Vitamin A protects the body from free radicals (free radicals can cause heart disease, Alzheimer’s and even arthritis). Vitamin A assists in the creation of new cells and hence the reason it is often called the “Anti-aging Vitamin.” Vitamin C, not only increases the body’s resistance to colds but is also an antioxidant – vital to healthy bodily maintenance.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that we limit our intake of fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugars (items indicated in red). The Nutrition Facts label used in this article can be found on a cup of Voskos all natural, non-fat Greek strained yogurt. It contains live and active probiotic cultures which help to regulate digestion. I eat one every day and highly recommend it. You can find it at Whole Foods, sometimes on sale for $1.99.

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