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How to Read Food Labels for Healthy Eating

Thursday, Mar 13, 2014

Read on for tips to help decipher food labels and make healthy food choices

March is National Nutrition Month, a good time to consider food labels and how they fit in to making healthy choices. Audrey Fleck, RDN, LDN with Healthy Directions Nutrition Therapy/Nutrition Counseling of Doylestown Hospital, tells us how important it is to read the Nutrition Facts label on our food.

"Although certain claims on food packaging make a food appear to be 'healthy,' reading the food label and ingredients should be the first thing a consumer refers to in order to determine if that item is the best choice for them. Remember, all food manufacturers want you to buy their food – the food label helps you read between the lines of marketing," says Audrey.

Food labels as we know them have been around for a while. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require nutrition labeling on foods. The rule became effective in 1994. The label hasn't changed much since then, except for the addition of trans fat to the list of required nutrients in 2006.

But change is coming.

The FDA is proposing to update the Nutrition Facts label, and the compliance date would be two years out.

Proposed Updates to Nutrition Labels

  • Requiring "Added Sugars" be declared on the label
  • Removing "Calories from fat" from the label Revising the list of nutrients (vitamin D and potassium would be newly required)
  • Revising Daily Values for certain nutrients
  • Updating serving size requirements and labeling for certain packages
  • Refreshing the label design

These changes are meant to reflect Americans' changing eating habits--how they actually eat. And also make labels easier to understand.

But for now, we have the nutrition labels we're used to. So, how do we read them to get the most information about the food we consume?

Start From the Top

  • Check the serving size and how many servings are in the container. Then ask yourself how many servings you're actually consuming.
  • Next, check the calories. And remember, the number of servings you are eating determines the number of total calories.

Figuring Out Fats and Cholesterol

Below the calories you'll find Total Fat and its components.

  • Look beyond total fat to the numbers for saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fats. You want minimal amounts of saturated and trans fat, and relatively more poly- and monounsaturated fats. But still eat fats only in moderation.
  • The American Heart Association reminds us to limit total fat to no more than 56–78 grams a day — including no more than 16 grams of saturated fat, less than two grams of trans fat (found in foods made with hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils), and less than 300 mg cholesterol (for a 2,000 calorie diet).

So, What About Sodium?

  • The American Heart Association recommends all Americans reduce the amount of sodium in their diet to less than 1,500 milligrams a day—that's down from the daily limit of 2,300 mg.
  • About 75% of sodium in our diet comes from sodium added to processed foods.

Calling All Carbohydrates

Total carbohydrates include everything from whole grains (healthy) to sugar and other refined carbohydrates (unhealthy).

  • Dietary fiber: Aim for eating between 25 and 38 grams of fiber daily
  • Sugars: These include glucose, dextrose, fructose and galactose and more. Watch for "hidden" added sugars in the ingredients list.

Getting Your Nutrients

  • Protein: Most adults need between 46 to 56 grams each day
  • Vitamins and Minerals: this list includes vitamins and minerals found naturally in food, plus any added to it
  • Nutrients are calculated for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet

Inside Ingredients

Ingredients are listed in order by weight.

  • Limit foods that list added sugars as the first few ingredients
  • Choose foods with a whole grain (like whole wheat) listed as the first ingredient to increase fiber intake
  • Other whole grains include: whole oats, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur, millet, quinoa and sorghum.

Don't Forget Daily Values

These are based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

  • Percent daily values listed in the right-hand column tell how much of a certain nutrient a person will get from eating one serving of that food.
  • These percentages are most useful for determining if a food is high or low in certain nutrients. If a food have 5% or less of a nutrient, it's not really a good source. If a food has 10% to 19%, it's considered a "good" source. And if the food has more than 20% of a nutrient, it's considered high in that nutrient.

The Bottom Line

Taking the time to carefully read a food's Nutrition Facts label will help you shop smarter and hopefully, eat healthier. You'll be able to compare food choices to see which fits best into a healthy diet.

Audrey reminds us, "The quality of your diet is so important! Although getting comfortable with reading a food label is a great place to start improving your health, the BEST foods for you will not have a lengthy list of questionable ingredients, be made in a factory, or contain many additives like salt, sugar, and fat. The BEST foods will appear as close to how they occur in nature -- like fruits and vegetables, which do not always require a food label!"

About Nutrition Counseling of Doylestown Hospital

Doylestown Health's Nutrition Counseling offers personalized nutrition plans for those with a current medical condition or those interested in preventive health and weight loss. Doylestown Health Nutrition Services specializes in nutrition therapy for diabetes, weight management, cardiovascular disease, digestive and eating disorders, pregnancy, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.

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