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Using Food Labels to Support a Healthy Weight

Using Food Labels to Support a Healthy Weight

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Food labels can be valuable tools to help you choose nutritious foods and lose more weight. Checking the nutrition facts panel and the list of ingredients when you’re grocery shopping can help you get foods that support weight loss.

Know Your Plan

Before you start reading labels to help with food choices, review your plan so you know which foods you want to buy. Here are some common elements of a healthy plan for weight loss.

  • Plenty of non-starchy vegetables, with at least 3-5 servings daily or at least half your plate covered with them at most meals
  • A lean source of protein at most meals and snacks, with fish, beans, reduced-fat dairy products, egg whites, and skinless chicken being more nutritious, lower-calorie options than fatty meats, processed meats, and poultry with skin
  • High-fiber carbohydrates like whole grains and non-starchy vegetables are more filling than refined grains
  • Healthy sources of fat can substitute for saturated fats, with peanut butter, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados instead of butter and cream
  • Fruit is a healthy snack and a great substitute for sweets and processed snack foods
  • Water, coffee, and tea are better hydration choices than sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweet tea, and flavored coffee beverages

Keep your list of healthy foods and beverages in mind to help you make better choices when reading labels.

Unlabeled Foods Can Be Best

Before thinking about food labels, let’s talk about foods without labels. They can be some of the healthiest choices, and you don’t have to read anything!

The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, regulates labeling for fish and other foods besides meat and poultry. The FDA says the following items can be sold without labels.

  • Fresh vegetables and fruit that are not packaged or have no additional ingredients
  • Fresh fish and shellfish
  • Nuts and seeds sold in bulk without added ingredients

The Department of Agriculture, or USDA, regulates meat and poultry. Nutrition information for fresh cuts must be on the package or posted where you purchase the item if it’s at a meat counter.

Choose Healthier Packaged Foods

Unpackaged foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts, and fish can be a foundation of your diet, but most people depend on packaged foods to fill in the gaps.

Many packaged foods can be nutritious. These are some examples.

  • Peanut butter
  • Canned low-sodium beans, tomatoes, and tuna
  • Whole-grain pasta, oatmeal, and brown rice
  • Eggs
  • Low-fat cheese and cottage cheese, and nonfat milk and yogurt
  • Vinegar, olive oil, and spices
  • Unsweetened frozen fruit and plain vegetables

Many other packaged foods are less nutritious. They may contribute to weight gain or health problems. Here are some examples.

  • Chips, cookies, and other processed snack foods
  • Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, salami, sausages, ham, and turkey slices
  • Sugar-sweetened foods like flavored oatmeal, yogurt, teriyaki sauce, and jam
  • Refined grain products like white bread and pasta, cake, pies, and pancake mix
  • Quick meals like pot pies, frozen dinners, boxed macaroni and cheese, and canned chili

Serving Size and Calories on Nutrition Facts Panels

Most packaged foods have nutrition facts panels on their labels. The FDA requires nutrition facts panels to have certain information. Here’s a breakdown of what to look for.

Check Serving Size

Always check the serving size instead of making assumptions. The calories and nutrients are per serving, so you need to know what the serving size is to know how many calories and nutrients are in the food.

Consider these examples.

  • A serving size of peanut butter may be 2 tablespoons, but you might eat only 1 tablespoon. That means you’ll get half the calories, fat, and other nutrients listed per serving.
  • A serving size of chips may be 1 ounce, but the bag may be 3 ounces. That means you’d eat 3 times the calories, carbs, and fat listed in one serving.
  • The serving size for bagels may be one bagel. If you have half of a bagel, you’ll get the calories, carbs, and fiber listed per serving.

The serving size can be listed in a few different ways. Here are some examples.

  • Weight, such as 1 ounce of almonds or 100 grams of chicken
  • Volume, such as ½ cup of cottage cheese, 2 tablespoons of hummus, or ¾ cup of bran flakes
  • Numbers, such as 1 large egg or 28 almonds It can also help to check servings per container.

Calories Per Serving

Calorie consumption affects weight loss. Whether or not you’re counting calories carefully, it’s useful to check calories per serving of a food when you’re deciding whether to purchase it. The calories per serving are listed near the top of the nutrition facts panel, right under the serving size and number of servings per container.

How Nutrient Amounts and % Daily Value Can Help You

Amounts and percent daily value (% DV) on labels can help you choose foods that are high or low in specific nutrients. They can also help you quickly compare the nutrient content of different foods.

Nutrient Amounts in Grams and Milligrams

Nutrients shown may have amounts near them. You may see grams (g) per serving for the following nutrients.

  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat
  • Total carbohydrates
  • Dietary fiber
  • Total sugars
  • Added sugars
  • Protein

You may see mg (milligrams) per serving for the following nutrients.

  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D

You can use these values to quickly compare foods. For example, you might find that a frozen dinner with spaghetti and marinara sauce has 3 grams of fiber and 8 grams of added sugar, while a dinner in the same brand with broccoli, chicken, and pesto has 4 grams of fiber and 2 grams of added sugar. Based on this, you might decide to have the broccoli, chicken, and pesto meal.

Percent Daily Value

For the above nutrients, as well as any other vitamins and minerals listed, you may see a percent daily value (% DV). That’s the amount recommended for most healthy adults.

Your specific needs may be slightly different than the % DV. Your protein, fat, and carbohydrate goals may be different if your calorie needs are not 2,000 calories a day, or if your healthcare provider has you on a low-carbohydrate or special diet. Your vitamin and mineral needs could be different from the % DV for many possible reasons, such as older age or other characteristics.

Nutrients to Increase

The law requires the nutrition facts panel to include certain nutrients. Some of them are nutrients that most Americans should get more of.

Dietary fiber, for example, can lower blood cholesterol levels, improve digestive health, and stabilize blood sugar. Plus, getting more dietary fiber often means choosing nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, and nuts.

Consuming more of the following four vitamins and minerals can improve your nutritional status and guide you toward choosing healthier foods. Look for foods with at least 20% DV if you’re looking to increase these nutrients.

  • Calcium - Low consumption can lead to osteoporosis and a risk of fractures
  • Iron - This is the most common mineral deficiency worldwide, including in the US
  • Potassium - Eating more potassium usually means you’re eating more vegetables, fruits, fish, beans, or other nutritious foods
  • Vitamin D - Vitamin D deficiency is common among Americans

When reading nutrition labels to select foods, look for foods with more of the above nutrients. You’ll also find protein on the label, which can be useful if you’re trying to increase your protein intake.

Nutrients to Limit

The nutrition facts panel also includes nutrients that most Americans can or should limit. Look for products with less than 5% DV for the following nutrients if you’re following a heart-healthy diet.

  • Saturated fat - It’s linked to heart disease and it’s often in less nutritious foods
  • Added sugars - They add calories, they don’t have additional nutrients, and they are often in high-calorie or highly processed foods
  • Cholesterol - People who eat a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol are more likely to have high cholesterol levels
  • Sodium - This is high in many processed foods, and it’s linked to high blood pressure

Check Ingredients

The ingredients list can be long, but you don’t have to read the whole thing to get the information you need. Here’s a quick overview.

The list of ingredients is in order from greatest amount to smallest amount. Here are some ways you can use this to help you pick out healthier foods.

  • Try to limit foods where added sugar is listed first or second. Sugar, cane juice, molasses, honey, fructose, corn syrup, agave syrup, and maple syrup are a few examples of added sugars.
  • If you’re looking for whole-grain products, check to make sure a whole grain is listed first. That is, you might look for “whole wheat flour” or “brown rice flour” instead of “enriched flour” or “wheat flour” first in the list of ingredients.
  • Many healthy-sounding foods don’t have the healthy ingredients you expect. For example, spinach noodles tend to have white flour (“enriched flour”) listed first, with “spinach” far down in the list. And, veggie chips often have potato or corn starch as their main ingredient, with only small amounts of vegetable powder listed further down.

Here are some more tips to help you choose healthy options.

  • If there are many chemicals or other ingredients listed that you don’t recognize, the food may be highly processed. Bisulfites, colors, and other additives can clue you in.
  • Nitrates, such as sodium nitrate, are carcinogenic compounds in many processed meats. They’re listed among the ingredients.
  • Artificial sweeteners include acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, aspartame, and saccharin.

Food Labels at a Glance

There’s a lot of information listed on the food label, but you don’t need to read every word every time. Here’s a run-down.

  • Check serving size
  • Check calories
  • Compare 1-2 key nutrients that you’re focusing on
  • Glance at the list of ingredients to make sure there are no surprises

You can start by looking at 1-2 food labels per shopping trip and checking just 1-2 items. You’ll soon get the hang of it!

Start making small changes to your nutrition today to lose weight and feel your best. Remember, your Lark coach is here to help every step of the way!

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