By Heather Bauer, RD, CDN HuffPost Healthy Living
At this time of year, it feels like everyone's excited about learning. From my 5-year-old daughter to the college students I see drinking lattes and riding bikes around New York City, there's just something about fall that makes us want to study, learn, and understand the world around us. I think that "back-to-school" feeling should never end, especially in regards to nutrition and healthy eating. That's why I wanted to share a little bit about how you can become a better reader of nutrition labels. Think of it as a fall crash course in eating healthfully, except the only test will be between you and your grocery cart.
I always tell my nutrition clients that one of the first things to do if you're trying to eat healthy is to get serious about reading nutrition labels. It can be confusing and daunting at first, but familiarizing yourself with the nutrition content of the food you're putting into your body will help you really learn about different nutrients and encourage you to make better choices. Here are my five tips on what you should look for on that omnipresent "Nutrition Facts" label.
Don't just look at the fat and calories: Of course, you want to pay attention to how many calories are in the item you're about to eat or buy. But that's not the only way to know if a food is good for you or not. Many packaged foods have crazy amounts of sugar or sodium, so make sure you look at that aspect of the labeling, as well. A rough guide to follow is to to look for less than 20 grams of fat and less than 10 grams of sugar (especially for snack bars and cereals). For sodium, anything above 480 milligrams is pretty high. If you can, keep it in the 120-300 milligram range. Counting carbs? That's another aspect to take notice of when you're looking at a label. I recommend looking for single-serving foods with lower net carbs, about 10 percent of your daily value of the FDA's recommended 300 grams per day.
Shorter is better: In terms of ingredient lists, that is! For snacks and basic foods like bread or juice, you definitely want to make sure you're buying a product with just a few ingredients. The fewer ingredients used in a product, the lower the chance you're eating artificial additives. If you can, look for foods that have fewer than 10 ingredients. If you can get it down to five or six, that's even better! I love FIT Popcorn by Popcorn Indiana's single serving bags, which have just as few as three ingredients, depending on the flavor.
Compare claims to facts: Sure, that all-natural cookie brand might say it's a good source of fiber, but if you check and see there's a measly 3 grams, it might not be the best way to get your daily recommended amount of fiber. Companies can easily label a product with a health claim, so make sure you flip the box over and read the entire label (not just the attractive words on the front!) before you toss it in your cart.
Aim low: With fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, you should be looking for lower numbers. We all need fat to keep our bodies running smoothly, but I think it's best to limit intake to about 60 grams per day, so keep your "calories from fat" low if you can. Cholesterol and sodium are best to limit as well, so buying products with lower numbers of these (less than 10 percent of your DV, or daily value) is ideal.
Serving size is key: Wow! Only 100 calories for this whole bag of chips? Oh wait... that's for one serving, and there's actually three full servings in this little bag. Sound familiar? I thought so. Make sure you look closely at serving sizes and compare them to calorie counts before you buy or consume a product. I often find that foods that look like a normal portion size actually contain two, three, even four or five servings! That's a crazy easy way to rack up the calories without even trying.