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Your Complete Cheat Sheet for Using Food Labels to Help You Lose More Weight

January 9, 2024
Your Complete Cheat Sheet for Using Food Labels to Help You Lose More Weight

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In this article:

  • A healthy diet for sustainable weight loss can be high in vegetables, fruit, and lean protein. It can include whole instead of refined grains, healthier fats, and limited amounts of sweets and fatty foods.
  • Fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat often don’t have food labels. Nuts and dried beans may not, either. These are usually healthy foods.
  • Packaged foods can be necessary parts of your diet. Their labels can help you choose healthier options. 
  • Check the serving size first. Then consider looking for calories and key nutrients for health and weight loss like saturated fat, dietary fiber, total carbohydrates, protein, and added sugars.
  • The list of ingredients can clue you in about other key information like whole grains, added sugars, and other additives.
  • Lark can help you lose weight with or without GLP-1s as you log food, get tips for eating healthier, and make small changes that can turn into healthy habits.

Choosing the right foods can be a foundation for sustainable healthy weight loss. The following tips can help you make smart choices when you’re selecting foods. Keep reading for tips on which foods to look for and how tools like the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list can give you insights into what to choose. 

Know Your Plan

The first step is to know your basic plan. Chances are, it looks something like this. 

  • Lots of non-starchy vegetables, with at least 3-5 servings daily or at least half your plate covered with them at most meals
  • Lean protein at most meals and snacks, with fish, beans, lowfat dairy products, egg whites, and skinless chicken being good options over fatty meats, processed meats, and poultry with skin
  • Whole grains whenever possible instead of refined grains
  • Healthy sources of fat instead of saturated fats, with peanut butter, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados instead of butter and cream 
  • A variety of fruit, especially as substitutes for sweets and processed snack foods
  • Water, coffee, and tea instead of sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweet tea, and flavored coffee beverages

Keep your healthy foods and beverages in mind to help you make better choices.

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 near 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
  • Lowfat 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 nutrition facts panels and 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 be getting 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 be getting 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 be getting half of 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
  • Number, 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 can be 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 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, for example, if your calorie needs are different from 2,000 calories a day, or if your healthcare provider has you on a low-carbohydrate or other type of 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

Mayo Clinic explains that by law, the nutrition facts panel includes certain nutrients. Some of them are nutrients that most Americans should get more of, such as the following.

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 nutritional status and guide you towards choosing healthier foods. Harvard School of Public Health suggests looking 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 for 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, it’s often good to look for foods with more of the above nutrients when you have a chance. 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. Harvard School of Public Health suggests aiming 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 don’t worry. 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 much of 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 find information you need.

  • 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!

How Lark Can Help

Weight loss and management are easier when you have the foods you need, so it’s important to know how to select the best options. Lark offers additional tools and support. Your Lark coach is available 24/7 for nutrition and physical activity coaching and tracking. Lark can help you make healthy choices and establish habits that fit into your lifestyle so you can lose weight and keep it off with or without GLP-1 medications. 

Click here to see if you may be eligible to join Lark today!

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Lark helps you eat better, move more, stress less, and improve your overall wellness. Lark’s digital coach is available 24/7 on your smartphone to give you personalized tips, recommendations, and motivation to lose weight and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes.

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