Over the past few years of asking this question to clients I have only had one person ever answer this question correctly, and the best part is he said he totally didn’t think it was correct.
Everyone’s first reaction is that it has to be sodium or calories. Then next I hear is sugar. Followed by fat and carbs. Well yes, those are all important to look at but if you don’t know what the serving size of the label you are looking at is, then all of those numbers are simply just meaningless numbers. The serving size is at the top of the label and should be the absolute first thing you look at. Period. After that be sure to see how many servings per package there are. If it says 6 servings per package and you know you are eating the whole container, each number on that label must be multiplied by 6.
After the servings area you can then scan the second half of the label. My suggestion? Next up bring your focus to fiber, followed by fats, calories and sodium.
The percent daily values are there as a guide for you. What you really should know about them is this: 5% or less means low and 20% or more correlates to high. You want to look for total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and sodium to be in the low category and aim for foods that put fiber in that high range.
After you read the label, be sure to scan the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order with the heaviest ingredient listed first. For example, a whole grain food item such as bread, should list whole grain as the first ingredient and an ingredient list with sugar as the first ingredient may not be the best choice.
Just as a pointer – always look for the word hydrogenated on an ingredient list. Even if a food claims to be trans fat free take a quick scan at the ingredient list and be sure that there are no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on that list, if so, the product could contain a half gram of trans fat per serving. If you eat more than one serving you are risking taking in a whole gram of trans fat and not even realizing it.
Other label claims can be deciphered as follows:
- Low-calorie means the item has 40 calories or less per serving
- Reduced-calorie items have at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving when compared with a regular version of the item
- Light or lite items have one-third fewer calories compared to the originals
- Sugar-free has less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving
- Reduced sugar means that the item has at least 25 % less sugar per serving when compared with a similar food
- Fat-free or 100% fat free items have less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving
- Low-fat items will have 3 grams or less fat per serving
- Low sodium means the item has140 mg or less of sodium per serving
- A “High in” claim provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving
- High fiber items contain five or more grams of fiber per serving
Be mindful, foods that may be fat free often have extra sugar or sodium or both.
How to avoid over-eating:
When it comes to weight loss and weight management it is of the utmost importance to follow portion sizes. Estimation does not work and when it comes to foods like oils and other calorically dense items, there is a huge difference between one and two tablespoons, about 120 calories difference. Buy measuring cups and measuring spoons and actually measure out what a portion looks like. This is truly one of the only ways you will know what you are consuming. You may even be surprised that one serving is most of the time all you need.
Tricks of the trade:
For me personally, when I see foods that I am purchasing that are listed in the serving section in ounces (1 oz serving) and another brand of the same type of item (that is nutritionally the same of course) listed in a quantifiable manner (i.e. a number of pretzels etc.) I will always choose the one I can measure easier. This way it prevents me from estimating.
When possible buy items that are pre-packaged so they can take the thinking out of the equation for you.
Never eat an item straight from the package. If you have a big bag of popcorn or nuts either measure out one serving or pre-measure the bag upon purchasing to avoid consuming more than one serving at a time. If the bag states it has 5 servings in it, pour it all out on the table, separate the contents into 5 piles and place each pile into its own Ziploc bag. Over eating problem solved.
Use smaller plates and bowls for meals and snacks – the kids plate will always be my number one recommendation, but if you don’t have one accessible to you, use your salad plate as your dinner plate. The full plate will appear like more food than it really is and will therefore likely satisfy you more.
Eat smaller portions every 3-4 hours. This will make sure you never let yourself get too hungry which will therefore prevent overeating at your next meal.
When out to eat? If it looks too big, it probably is. Try ordering an appetizer as your entrée or splitting an entrée with a friend. If this isn’t possible, ask for a to-go bag as you order, you can either ask them to simply put half the meal on the plate and half in a bag and deliver it to you with your plate or ask your waiter to bring you your own to go container when the meal arrives and you can decide how much goes into the bag upon receiving the meal.
All of these pointers and tricks for reading food labels brings me back to my favorite word…moderation. Be mindful of your labels and your portions. If a portion looks too big, it probably is! Enjoy the foods you love in smaller amounts and then you will never feel deprived!
- Jenna A. Stock, RD, RDN