Healthy living of course starts with your diet and you have already learned plenty about what to eat and why.  Picking good foods is essential to this because even though something is meat or grains or milk doesn’t mean its the right choice.  Obviously skim milk is not the same as whole milk in fat content and Frosted Flakes is not the same as Bran Flakes in sugar and fiber content.  So knowing how to read the labels on foods (and go for high fiber, low fat, low sugar) is part of how to be a healthy person.

With most foods today (in the US at least) it is relatively easy to find their nutrition information.  Packaged foods in particular are required by law to disclose their nutrition information.  The label will tell you the amount carbs, including sugars and fiber, protein, fat, and usually some vitamins and minerals.  Although the law demands disclosure of certain nutrition information, some labels include more information than required.  For example, the amount of fiber must be disclosed, but not how much of each type of fiber (soluble and insoluble).  Also, the amount of total carbohydrates and sugar is required, but the amount of complex carbs is not.   In a situation such as this you can simply subtract the amount of sugar and fiber from total carbohydrates to find complex carbohydrates (I’ll illustrate this later).  So, labels do differ, but even if they don’t tell you everything, you can at least figure it out.

Now I want you to take a look at the following label.  Check it out and see what information you can glean from it.  Following will be an explanation of the main points, indicated by superscripts.  The things I don’t note are self explanatory.  Note also that a label actually has more than I am including, but if you can understand this part, the rest becomes self explanatory as well.

Nutrition Facts

1Serving size 1 cup (250g)

Servings per container about 3

Amount per serving

2Calories 180                       Calories from Fat 10

5%Daily value

3Total Fat 1g                                     2%

Saturated Fat 0.5g                3%

Trans Fat 0g

Cholesterol 10mg                           2%

Sodium  425 mg                              17%

Potassium  170mg                          5%

4Total Carbohydrate  37g             12%

Dietary Fiber  3g                   12%

Sugars  10g

Protein  6g

1)     Serving size is the amount of the particular food that has the amounts of everything you see on the label.  If you were to eat 2 cups for example, you would get 360 calories, 2g fat, 74 g carbs, etc; twice as much of everything.

2)     This is simply the total number of calories you will get in a cup of this food.  Fat calories refers to the number of these calories that come from fat.  In terms of health, you want calories to be much higher than fat calories.  For example, if you have 100 calories in a serving and 50 fat calories, you will be getting half of those calories from fat.  For this label, only 10 out of 180 calories are from fat.  That’s only 5½%.

3)     Total fat is how much fat you get from all sources (there are different types).  This is tricky though.  Saturated fat is considered “bad” and trans fat is considered “bad” also (particularly for cholesterol levels and heart disease risk).  However, unsaturated fat is considered “good” for the most part.  This label does not show unsaturated amounts, but it’s the only one left.  There is 1 gram of total fat and .5g from saturated and trans fats, so that leaves .5g for unsaturated fat (good fat).  So this is ½ “good”, ½ “bad” fats.  Typically you want to see much higher unsaturated fat levels than saturated or trans (especially in foods where the fat content is a little more significant).

4)     Total carbohydrates is similar to total fat.  Total carbs includes sugar, complex carbs, and fiber.  Since there is a total of 37g of carbs (3g fiber, and 10 g sugar), that means the amount of complex carbohydrates is 24g (37g total-10g sugar-13g fiber=24g complex carbs).  Remember that foods should be much higher in complex carbs and fiber than sugar.

5)     This column indicates what percentage of a certain nutrient you are getting in relation to how much you “need” each day.  This is not terribly important, but you should be aware of what it is.  This is NOT accurate for everyone.  It assumes you are an “average” person with “average” needs.  It also assumes a MINIMAL amount of nutrients necessary to avoid deficiency diseases.  For example, 100% of the vitamin C you need for the day is 60mg.  This is the amount you need to avoid death, not the amount your body needs to function at its optimum.