One of the most important things you can do for your own nutrition is to know what you’re eating. In recent years, food labels have become much more user friendly and you really can know exactly what you’re putting in your body.
Your relationship with food is very important. What you eat can help to give you energy, improve your immunity, and allow you to combat many diseases. But it can also do the opposite – leave you feeling weak and even cause disease.
But if you’ve never given your food much thought, reading food labels can be intimidating. There’s a lot of information there. Deciding which information is important and which isn’t can be challenging. Once you know the basics, though, you’ll read those labels with confidence.
Be Smart about Serving Size
Begin with looking at the serving size on the label. Sometimes people miss this part of the label and then have an inaccurate idea of what’s actually in the food. For example, if you have a can of soup and the label says it’s 2 servings, that means that the information on the label would be doubled if you ate the whole can.
Labels have gotten better in the recent past. For example, a can of soda used to be 1.5 or 2 servings. But now when you look at the label, one can of soda is a whole serving because most people will drink the entire thing. A 20 oz bottle, though, is more than 2 servings.
Once you know the serving size, you’re ready to move on to looking at the quality of the food you’re eating. The most obvious information you can get from your food label is about the breakdown of calories.
The label will tell you how many calories are in each serving. Calories are the measurement for how much energy it takes down to break down the food. The higher the calories, the longer it will take to break it down.
Your metabolism is the measure of how much energy you burn over a period of time. While we often think of exercising as burning calories, the effect of exercise is small compared to the total calories you burn.
When your heart beats, you breathe in and out, your body breaks down nutrients and makes new blood cells you’re burning calories. That’s why you need an average of around 2,000 calories in a day.
There are three basic biomolecules that your food can give you: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Food labels tell you exactly how much of each you’re getting in a serving of food. The label also tells you how many grams of that food you need in a typical diet.
Depending on the label, the following are the major categories you’ll find:
*· Total calories per serving
*· Grams of carbohydrates
*· Grams of fat
*· Milligrams of sodium
*· Grams of protein
*· Vitamins and minerals, if any
Within those major categories are some subdivisions to help you understand even more about what you’re eating. Let’s take a look at those subdivisions and what they mean for you when it comes to your diet.
Not All Carbohydrates are Created Equal
When it comes to carbohydrates, some are better for you than others. Let’s be clear – you need carbohydrates to have energy and to be healthy. Any diet that tells you to eliminate them completely is unhealthy.
A food label will break down carbohydrates into two categories – fiber and sugars. You need both. However, many people don’t have enough fiber in their diets. You want to look for foods that are high in this nutrient.
Fiber helps you to lower your cholesterol and helps your digestive system to be more regular. You’ll find more fiber in foods that contain whole grains such as wheat and oats. This is the healthier type of carbohydrate.
The other category of sugars is what you need to watch if you’re concerned about diabetes. Depending on your situation with blood sugar, you’ll want to limit how many grams of sugar you get in your diet.
When it comes to calories, every gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. So if you want to know how many calories in the food come from carbohydrates you can multiply your carbohydrate grams by four. Then you can look at the total calories in the serving to determine the percentage of calories that come from them.
The Purpose of Protein
Your body must have protein to build structures. Most of the structures inside you consist of protein and in order to have the building blocks to repair cells and develop muscles, you’ll need to eat food that has this important molecule.
A food label will tell you the number of grams of protein in your food. You’ll want to look for foods that are high in protein. Foods that have a lot of protein include nuts, meats, whole grain foods, and dairy products.
The Facts About Fats
Food labels will also give you information about fats. In the past, health practitioners told patients to avoid fat altogether. But it turns out that modern science doesn’t support that type of diet. You actually need fats just like you need other molecules in your food.
The two major categories of fats are unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fats come from plant sources. At room temperature unsaturated fats stay liquid. These are considered healthy fats. You need them to help keep your skin and other organs healthy.
Unsaturated fats also help lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol in your blood. This helps to protect your heart and prevent problems such as heart disease and stroke. They also help your digestive system to run smoothly.
Saturated fats come from animal fats. These are solid at room temperature and are considered unhealthy fats. They contribute to high cholesterol, clogged arteries and can ultimately lead to heart disease, stroke, and other disorders.
Speaking of cholesterol, you can also find the amount of cholesterol in a serving of food on the label. Cholesterol amounts become important when you’re trying to eat a heart healthy diet. If you’re trying to lower cholesterol, you’ll want to pay attention to this part of the label.
Trans fats are a category of fats that come from altering the chemical structure of an unsaturated fat. They are also called hydrogenated fats because the process of taking a liquid unsaturated fat to a solid trans fat involves adding hydrogen atoms to the molecules.
For many years it was thought that trans fats were as healthy as unsaturated fats, but that has been disproved. In fact, trans fats are actually more harmful than saturated fats. Because of the bad press trans fats many food manufacturers are removing it from their products.