Whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or simply eat more healthfully, understanding nutrition facts on your food labels is essential. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how. This simple guide on how to understand the nutrition facts label will give you all the information you need to get started.

Start With the Serving Size

At the top of the nutrition label you’ll see the serving size as well as the number of servings in the package. Generally speaking, serving sizes are standardized so it’ll be easy to compare one food to another similar food. They might be in cups, pieces, or grams, depending on the type of food.

Serving size is essential. It doesn’t do any good to buy products that are low in fat or calories if you’re going to sit down and eat four servings in a single sitting.

Serving Size

A Closer Look at Calories

Most people are familiar with calories but they don’t necessarily know exactly what they are. Basically, they indicate how much energy you’ll get per serving. It’s no surprise that most Americans eat more calories than they need – and don’t get the recommended daily nutrients.

General Calorie Guidelines

Doctors generally agree that:

  • 40 calories and less is low
  • 100 – 399 calories is moderate
  • 400+ calories is high

Nutrients to limit

The first nutrients you’ll see listed on the nutrition label are the ones that Americans generally get more than enough of fat (broken down into saturated fat and trans fat), cholesterol, and sodium. Eating too many of any of these nutrients can increase your chances of several chronic diseases:

  • Heart disease
  • Certain cancers
  • High blood pressure

Experts encourage people to eat as little of these nutrients as possible while still maintaining a balanced diet.

Nutrition Facts

Nutrients to increase

On the other hand, there are many nutrients that most American don’t get nearly enough of in their daily diets. They include:

  • Fiber
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron

Those who do get enough of these nutrients are likely to see better health and a reduction in certain diseases. As an example, the right amount of calcium lowers the risk of osteoporosis and a diet rich in fiber improves bowel function.

The Footnote on the Nutrition Facts Label

At the footnote, you’ll see a disclaimer that the numbers in the “%Daily Value” column are based on a diet with 2,000 calories. This is required to be on all food labels but the rest of the disclaimer isn’t always there if the package is too small.

If it does appear it will be exactly the same on every label: it will list exactly how much of certain nutrients are recommended for 2,000 calorie diets and 2,500 calorie diets. Some amounts change, like the total fat and total carbs, but others stay the same, like sodium and cholesterol.

Nutrition food labels provide invaluable information for those who are trying to eat more healthfully but they only work if you understand what they’re telling you.

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