At any given moment, about half of the consumers in the world are trying to lose weight. Does that surprise you? Probably not, since you’ve gone probably changed your diet multiple times in hopes of losing weight. So have I, and so have most people I know. But what makes it so difficult to achieve is the constant bombardment of information we get from so many different sources: one day, doctors say not to eat any carbohydrates; the next day, sugar’s the culprit; a week later, we need to stay away from all white bread; and the list goes on. How do we know who to listen to and how to actually get healthier?
I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is no miracle cure. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to weight loss, because although there are a few guidelines we should all be following—eat more fruits and vegetables, eat less fast food, control portion sizes—everybody is inherently different and some people may need more of one food than another, while some can eat more sugar than others without gaining a pound (aren’t those people annoying?).
But one thing’s for sure: in order to lose weight and feel better, you need to understand what you’re putting in your body—and that means you need to understand how to read nutrition labels. But only half of consumers around the world understand nutrition labels, according to an online survey of 25,000 people conducted by Nielsen. If you’re going to diet to lose weight, you have to know how to read food labels, and know what to purchase—or what not to purchase.
Five Things To Know About Nutrition Labels
1. Serving size:
Looking at the service size allows you to compare two similar products and the nutrients they contain, but it also forces you to ask yourself how many servings you’ll be consuming.
If you buy a box of crackers and there’s only 50 calories per serving, great. But if there are 20 servings in that one box, not so great, since you’ll be eating most of them. Read this part of the nutrition label carefully.
The FDA recommends that you calculate how many servings you’ll be eating per meal so you can adjust the amount of fat, sugar, and nutrients. Keep in mind that eating the right serving size can help you lose weight.
Calories tell you how much energy you’ll get from this food. Here’s the problem: too many Americans eat double or triple the amount of calories they actually need and still don’t get the right amount of nutrients.
Eating too many calories will make you overweight, so use this measure to understand how much you’re eating at every meal.
3. Percent Daily Values
This is a percentage that indicates how much of each item on the list (sugar, carbohydrates, protein, etc.) you should be getting per day. This percentage assumes you’re consuming 2,000 calories a day. Hint: most people can eat much less than this and still get their nutrients (especially if you want to lose weight).
You want to make sure that the percentage of sugar, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium is well below the percent daily value, because, again, that percentage is a number of how much of that food group you should be eating for the entire day. So don’t waste 50% of your recommended carbohydrate intake on one meal.
At the bottom of nutrition labels, you’ll see a list of nutrients that are good for you, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, vitamin D, protein, and dietary fiber.
You definitely want to consume your maximum daily percentage of these! Filling up on healthy nutrients will prevent you from snacking on unhealthy food later on—another tip to lose weight.
5. Sodium, Cholesterol, and Fats:
Nutrition labels will state the amount of sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat in each item. Keep these as low as possible.
What can you do if your favorite snack contains a lot of sodium and little of anything else? You can let yourself indulge a little, even when you’re trying to lose weight, but then make sure you compensate for that extra sodium by choosing a meal later on that has very little.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label,” http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/nflpm/ucm274593.htm, last updated November 2004; last accessed March 13, 2013.
Nielsen, Battle of the Bulge & Nutrition Labels: Healthy Eating Trends Around the World,” http://silvergroup.asia/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Nielsen-Global-Food-Labeling-Report-Jan2012.pdf; January 2012.