How to quickly make sense of nutrition labels

Young couple shopping in a supermarket
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To some people, nutrition labels are just something that occupies the space on the back of a food package; a collection of words and numbers that make little practical sense. But if you’re the health-conscious type, you’ll want to have a solid grasp of what goes into your food. Things like calories, protein, sugar and fiber — these are important, right?

The trouble with reading nutrition labels is that shopping for healthy food can become an hours-long ordeal where you scrutinize literally everything you pick up. At some point, your eyes will start to glaze over. Eventually you might decide to throw in the towel altogether, leave your trolley in the middle of the store and head to the McDonald’s down the street instead. Not good.

To avoid all that, let’s simplify things a little. Here are five easily-digestible steps to understanding everything you need to know about these fact-sheets:

1. No Labels

Here’s a quick tip for dealing with nutrition labels: if the product has one, put it down and move on! But seriously, whole foods that don’t even require a label should always be your first priority. Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and fruits are healthy because they’re intact and unprocessed. They are the natural foods that you want to comprise the bulk of your diet, so fill your basket with these first.

2. Serving Sizes

Your first step when examining a food label is to determine the serving size. At first glance, you might think that tub of fruit yogurt has only 10 grams of sugar. But a closer look reveals it actually has 10 grams per serving, and there’s five servings in the tub. This is especially important when choosing between two similar products, as you’ll want to make sure you’re comparing like-for-like.

3. Calories

If you’re trying to lose weight, the calorie content of a product is going to be important. You don’t want to choose products based on calories alone, as the source of those calories (i.e. the ratio of macronutrients) is much more important. But knowing how many calories you get per serving can help you determine the size of your portions. So take a quick look at this figure and then move to the next step.

4. The Good

The real meat and potatoes (pun intended) of nutrition labels are the macro- and micro-nutrient values. These will vary depending on the product, but there are a few things to look out for. We all need protein, which is a crucial building block for cells and tissues. Fiber keeps your digestive system working properly, and vitamins and minerals are vital for your health. The more of all these, the better. Simple.

5. The Bad

Be wary of sugar, which is nutritionally void and potentially harmful. Sodium and cholesterol can also be dangerous, and you should avoid trans fats altogether as they are known to increase your risk of heart disease. You can quickly assess how “good” or “bad” a food is by checking out the “% Daily Value” figure for each nutrient, which gives a rough idea of the upper limit for most individuals.

Q: What information do you look for on nutrition labels? Let us know in the comments below.

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