How to read a nutrition label – in general – is a daunting task. For weight loss? Forget about it. In grade school, we learned about the food pyramid, which has changed multiple times in my life time. We were told fats were bad, then good, then bad again. Heck, even eggs were bad for a period. A nutrition label can look like a foreign language. If you are trying to figure out If the contents will help you lose weight becomes next to impossible.
Due to this daunting task, I decided to search out the top few things to look for when checking out a food label when trying to lose weight. Although no list will cover everything (Since food labels even have food coloring included), this will give you enough knowledge to make an informed decision.
Nutrition Label Serving Size – How much is 100 calories?
This is tricky. The most glaring example I always fail to hit would be cereal. A half cup of my grainy cereal is a serving? Containing 160 calories? My small bowl, which does not even get rid of my hunger, is six servings. This is before milk.
This is where most people get into trouble. They see a label and do not realize that you should be eating a teeny tiny amount to count as a serving. Most people vastly underestimate what they eat. If you start measuring your food intake you will be shocked by how many calories and servings you actually pack away.
Knowing What Zero Really Means
You would be shocked to find out that when you see zero for calories on your diet soda, it means it contains less than five calories per serving. Same goes for your sugar substitute that has a serving size of a half teaspoon. The FDA allows for lose definitions on food labels. Ranging from saying zero calories, to low fat meaning the product only contains less than three calories per serving.
When you combine this with serving size, you quickly see all your diet food and soda is giving you an extra hundred calories a day. While the deception ranges, I personally find the definitions for an item being low in calories the most frustrating. Calorie Free, Zero Calories, No Calories, Without Calories, Trivial Source of Calories, Negligible Source of Calories, and Dietary Insignificant Source of Calories all mean the same thing, that what you are eating has less than five calories per serving.
If it is too good to be true, it is. Your gum has more than zero calories. Your diet soda has more than zero calories. Low in calories is the distant second in my opinion, as low in calories is only defined by having under 40 calories per serving. A piece of hard candy is low in calories, but it is still far more calorie dense than a carrot. If you do not watch the zero and low calorie foods, you will just keep packing on the pounds.
It Came from a Science Lab
The biggest culprits of food being laced with substances which will pack on the pounds would be those containing sugar substitute or high fructose corn syrup. Diet food and soda, or any food containing a synthetic sweetener, stimulates the body to expect sugar. When you do not get sugar, your blood sugar levels and insulin levels go astray and you crave sweats.
Then you have Trans Fats, which are altered fat cells to help preserve foods, and are the worst types of fats you can eat. High Fructose what? Sugar made in a lab to be a substitute for sugar, which is cheaper and sweeter. A synthetic sweetener, even one which does contain calories, is not processed well by your body and can cause over eating.
In general, if you cannot pronounce it, or it is on the label in the place of a real ingredient found in nature, it is best to avoid that food.
Percentage of What?
The final confusing bit of a nutrition label would be the percentage of daily value estimates. The nutrition label assumes you should consume 2,000 calories a day, have no special dietary conditions, and that we all agree on how many macronutrients and micronutrients we need.
The problem is no one needs only 2,000 calories a day. Even top dieticians cannot agree how much Vitamin C a person needs, let alone everyone. Men and women need different amounts of vitamins. Children and Adults need different amounts of vitamins as well. By time we get to protein (8 grams of protein is 20% of whose daily value?) you should be hitting your head against the wall.
Depending on your fitness level, muscle mass, lean body mass, age and goals determines how much of a given micronutrient or macronutrient you should eat. The label is at the very least deceptive, and at worst a lie. You should avoid the percentages and just follow the guide as a rough estimate of how much of a nutrient you are consuming, and not a rule for how much you should have.
Find all the resources used in this article and the scientific basis of all our article at The Science Behind Fitness.