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Learning to Read a Nutrition Label Can Help You Lose Weight

Nutrition Labels, Weight Loss, Weight Management

The Nutrition Facts label on food is a requirement for most packaged products in the United States. However, those facts and figures can be a little difficult to comprehend. But that little extra step can be a big boost to your weight loss efforts, finds a new study published in the journal Agricultural Economics.

Study lead author Maria Loureiro of the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and colleagues analyzed the responses to the US National Health Interview Survey that included observations on the eating and shopping habits of US consumers. Women were more likely than men to read the Nutrition Facts label on a food package, and those who did weighed up to nine pounds less than women who did not check the label for information such as calories and fat. Their BMI value was also almost 1.5 points lower on average.

Past studies indicate that one of the reasons why people avoid reading the Nutrition Facts label is because it is confusing or overwhelming. That small grid on the side of your food package contains a lot of information, but when it comes to weight loss, what is important and what can be put aside?

One of the most important steps to understanding a Nutrition Facts label is first knowing how much of the food you are holding is considered “one serving.” This ultimately will help you understand the overall nutritional value of a food. Take a look at a 20-ounce bottle of regular soda, for example. While you or I may down it in one sitting, it is actually 2.5 servings – meaning when you see that one serving is “only” 100 calories, you have actually consumed 250. That seemingly small mistake of 150 extra calories per day can add up to a potential 15 pound weight gain over the course of a year.

Calorie content is probably the most reviewed statistic on the Nutrition Facts Label and very important for weight management. The total number of calories was calculated by adding together fat, carbohydrate, and protein using the following equation: Calories = (fat grams x 9) + (carbohydrate grams x 4) + (protein grams x 4). *Remember that the calorie amount listed on the label is rounded up or down to the nearest 0 or 5, so the answer you get from the above equation might be slightly off.

The problem with the Nutrition Facts label, however, is that most of the information that follows is based on a person consuming 2000 calories in a day. There are many of us, particularly those trying to lose excess weight, that need much less. Bear in mind, though, that the minimum calorie intake for optimal health is no less than 1200 calories, unless a physician has ordered otherwise. (A good equation for calculating your personal calorie needs based on height, weight and activity level is the Harris-Benedict equation found at www.bmi-calculator.net.)

“Calories from fat” is often also listed so that a person can judge if the food is considered high in fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that no more than 30% of daily calories come from fat sources. An example on the FDA website is Macaroni and Cheese, which is 250 calories per serving, with 110 of those coming from fat. In this case, the food item provides 44% of its calories from fat sources and is probably a food you want to limit if you are trying to follow a heart-healthy diet.

The next three ingredients on the food label are those that the consumer is most likely to want to limit in his or her diet – Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium. Fat is listed in grams, while cholesterol and sodium are listed in milligrams. Perhaps the most confusing about this part of the label is understanding the “% Daily Value”. This guideline provides recommendations for key nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie diet. For example, for someone who requires 2,000 calories per day, it is suggested that they consume 600 or less of those from fat. Because one gram of fat equals 9 calories, the maximum number of fat grams recommended in one day is around 67 grams.

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Cholesterol and sodium are a little different. The AHA recommends that people consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day, regardless of the number of calories they eat. The “% Daily Value”, then, is based on how much the food contributes to those 300 milligrams. For sodium, the recommendation for most adults is 2400 milligrams, again, regardless of the number of calories.

Next on the label are carbohydrates. Carbs are often counted to ensure that enough are consumed for optimal health, although some people do focus on limiting these in an effort to lose weight (such as in high protein, low carb diets). Carbohydrate, like fat, is based on a person eating 2,000 calories, and a balanced diet plan suggests that around 50% of daily intake comes from carbohydrate sources. So, for that active adult consuming 2000 calories, the daily total of carbs to shoot for in a day is around 250 (50% of 2000 calories divided by 4 calories per gram). For low-carb diet followers, keep in mind that most health professionals suggest a minimum of 100 grams per day for optimal brain cell function and manufacture of red blood cells.

Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not easily digested and therefore does not contribute to the overall calorie content of a food. However, it is an important component of the daily diet because of its beneficial effect on reducing the risk of heart disease and possibly certain cancers. For weight loss efforts, because fiber takes longer to digest, a person feels full longer and ultimately may eat fewer calories.

The daily goal for fiber for adults is a minimum of 25 grams. Not every food will contain fiber, but for those foods that are grains, such as pastas or breads, the goal is to find products that have at least 2-3 grams of fiber per serving.

“Sugars” is one of the more confusing listings on a food label, because it does not indicate if the sugar is naturally occurring or added during manufacturing. For example, on a package of applesauce, you might notice that the total grams of carbohydrate and the total grams of sugar are equal, indicating the food is made entirely of sugar. In this case, understand that the sugar from apples is not considered one of the harmful sugars for overall health, and trying to reduce sugar in this case is not the same as trying to reduce added sugars, such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup.

Currently, there is not a “Recommended Dietary Intake” for total sugar, but recently, the AHA issued guidelines that stress that Americans should drastically reduce the amount of dietary sugar that is added to the foods we eat. The AHA recommends that no more than 100-150 calories a day come from added sweeteners.

Protein is listed last among the macronutrients on the Nutrition Facts label, and it is not given a “% Daily Value”. Currently, there is no RDA for protein, and it depends upon who you ask as to the number of grams of protein you should have in a day. One calculation, called the Daily Reference Value, calls for around 10% of calories or 50 grams per day for a person eating 2000 calories. But the majority of nutrition experts recommend a more balanced approach of about 20% of calories a day from protein. For a person eating a 2000 calorie diet, this would set a daily protein goal of 100 grams a day.

At the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label is a short listing of a few vitamins and minerals. Only two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (Calcium and Iron) are listed on the Nutrition Facts label, obviously not encompassing all that a person needs for optimal health. For weight loss, these vitamins and minerals may not seem important, but bear in mind that ignoring nutritional quality in the diet can be harmful to your health, eliminating some of the benefits you are trying to achieve with less body fat. These nutrients are listed as percentages only, and not in grams or milligrams as the other nutrients.

Hopefully, this has helped you to better understand where all of the numbers come from on a Nutrition Facts label and you can use them to improve your efforts to cut calories, reduce fat and cholesterol for heart health, or manage carbohydrate intake for diabetes control. Every line will not be important to every consumer, so set your goals for the nutrients that are most important to your personal overall health.

NY Daily News
US Food and Drug Administration
American Heart Association