As a longtime family physician, I try to educate my patients about simple things they can do to maintain a healthy weight and help them understand exactly what they are consuming. I find food nutrition labels fascinating, so in honor of National Nutrition Month I’m going to explain how to read a nutrition facts label.

Some patients don’t even realize food packages have nutrition labels, let alone how to read them. For instance, the label on Raisin Bran cereal can typically be found on the side of the box with a bold headline that says “Nutrition Facts.” Other packages may display the label on the bottom or back in small print.

The first nutritional label came out in 1906 when the federal government started investigating whether ground pepper contained more than just pepper. The labeling process evolved through the decades, and the FDA now requires most food packages to contain nutrition labels.

New laws will soon require nutrition labels be placed on the front of all packaging. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find nutrition labels on everything you consume, such as on a cup of coffee or food served on an airplane.

Pay Attention at the Grocery Store

I educate myself on nutrition by going to the grocery store. I spend a lot of time reading food labels, and I end up putting many of the items I pick up back on the shelf after reading how many calories and fat grams they contain. While the labels may not be exact, they give you a really good idea of what you’re about to eat.

One of the most important numbers on the Nutrition Facts label to note is the number of servings per container. Otherwise, you might think the 190 calories listed on the side of the cereal box means you can eat the whole box. The 190 calories applies per serving of cereal, and the whole box contains 13 servings. The label also shows the serving size for the cereal as one cup. Most of us use bigger bowls and one cup isn’t that much, so be sure to modify the calorie count based on an accurate number of servings.

As you move down the label, it’s important to understand the amount of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol in the food, and the calories that each one adds to your diet. Farther down, you’ll find the micronutrients listed, such as Vitamin D or iron, and the daily percentages of each that’s provided in one serving based on USDA and FDA guidelines.

If you’re watching your weight, pay particular attention to the total fat grams and carbohydrates, which is where a lot of calories tend to sneak into our diets and solidify themselves. Track where your fats and carbs come from each day and try to limit how many you consume. The most concentrated items will be listed first, with the least concentrated at the end.

Which Nutrients Do We Need Less Of?

When the nutrition label laws went into effect in 1990, it was the result of the processed food industry’s efforts to turn vegetable oils into a more moldable, usable form that preserves food longer. These are called trans fats.

Trans fats are under the microscope once again, as we discover more and more how large a role they play in increasing cholesterol levels and our overall fat intake. On nutrition labels, trans fats are listed as “hydrogenated,” such as hydrogenated soybean oil. Hydrogenated means it’s been transformed into a solid fat that’s easier for manufacturers to use and prolongs the shelf life of the food.

Nutrition is paramount. In our American diet, most of us are blessed with access to a great variety of non-processed foods that contain all of the nutrients we need to stay healthy. It’s OK to splurge every now and again on something with high calories or fat, but it’s best to keep it in moderation.

If you need help understanding nutrition labels or want to discuss how to develop healthy eating habits, contact me at Westfield Premier Physicians by calling 317-763-2131 or stop by the office at 15229 Westfield Blvd. in Westfield. The coffee pot is always on!

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