Reading Food Labels to Control Calories and Other Nutrition Choices

Control Calories and Make the Best Nutrition Choices

Many people get confused as they are reading food labels. There are many tricky terms that can confuse someone who is trying to control calories, carbohydrates, protein, fiber or fat intake. If you are one of these people, don’t worry. These facts will help you make better nutrition choices.

Understanding Food Terms

Here are the meanings of everyday terms used by food manufacturers. It is important to know what they mean so that you can choose your foods wisely.

FDA – FDA is an abbreviation for the Food and Drug Administration. As part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for food safety regulations. They also regulate drugs, vaccines and medical products. Usually, food labels are regulated through the FDA.

Low Calorie – The FDA defines low calorie as a food that is more than two tablespoons and does not provide more than 40 calories. Check those labels, though! Many low calorie foods are high in fat by percentage.

Reduced Calorie and Light – The FDA considers a food reduced calorie or light if the calories have been reduced by one-third over the original. Once again, these products can be high in fat.

Calorie Free – The FDA says that a product can be labeled calorie free as long as it has less than five calories per serving. If you don’t consume a lot of these products it’s a way to control calories.

Low Fat – The FDA considers a food low fat if it has three grams or less of fat. Watch out, though, these foods can be very high in calories and sugar.

Fat Free – Think fat free means fat free? Think again. The FDA says that if there are fewer than 0.5 grams of total fat per serving a product can be called fat free. So, that fat free product may still contain fat.

Reduced Fat – Reduced fat is regulated as a product that contains 50 percent or less fat of the original food version. It may sound good, but make sure to check the label. Even 50% less can still be more fat than you are willing to ingest.

Fiber – For a healthy diet a person needs about 25 grams of fiber per day. If you haven’t been getting that much be sure to increase your daily intake gradually so your body gets used to it otherwise you may suffer from bloating and gas.

Sodium – I hate food with lots of sodium. Why? It tastes bad to me, it’s probably over processed, it makes me thirsty then when I weigh myself the next day I’ve gained about two pounds of water weight; totally de-motivating. The only time a high sodium snack makes any sense is if I am doing a very long and strenuous workout and I need to keep the electrolytes in balance. Gatorade works as well.

How to Choose

Maybe you just want to eat something really tasty like some chocolate Milano’s. In this case disregard all the label info and just go for the tastiest treat you can find but don’t do this on a regular basis. Maybe limit this behavior to once per month or less.

Look at your goals for eating. Fat and calories are not the only things to consider. You need protein and fiber in your diet too. Also, check the quality of the fat in the product. Unsaturated is better than saturated. And remember that your diet should contain about 25% of the calories from fat. If you don’t eat enough fat you will feel hungry and want to eat more.

Carbohydrates come in different forms too. Some are pure sugar or sugar derivatives such as high fructose corn syrup which I tend to avoid. Choose more complex carbohydrates if possible.

When comparing foods I usually pick the ones with highest fiber, high protein, low sodium and good quality fats and carbohydrates in that order. This usually results in a balanced food choice. If I just need a blast of energy in the middle of a long bike ride, then a high sucrose product or a diluted sports drink works fine.

One comment about serving size, the information printed on the label almost always refers to a single serving size. When I look at the package of nuts I think, gee, only 100 calories, nearly all from fat. However, there are eight servings in the bag. What are the chances I’m only going to eat one serving? Probably zero percent. So that means I’ll probably eat at least half the bag, 400 calories from fat. Get it. Think about how much of the food you are going to eat at one time then decide.

What to Do with the Facts

As you can see, just because a food has a snappy food label on it doesn’t mean that it is 100% great for your diet. Always, always check the Nutrition Facts label with an eye towards finding out the true amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and the serving size. Think about what you want out of the food you choose. You have a lot of nutritional choices within product types. Reading food labels to control calories is one way to look at it but there is much more information provided to help you make the best food choice for your current needs.