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 Understand Nutrition Labels




                   Making Sense of Nutrition Labels by Jonny Bowden, M.A., C.N.S.

Confused about how to read a "nutrition facts" label? You're hardly alone. While most of the info is important to know, some of it is both confusing and ultimately useless. And without a scorecard, it's hard to know which is which.

Calories and Serving Size:

These two pieces of information are joined together at the hip. Why? Because manufacturers often conceal the real caloric content of what you're going to be eating by making the suggested "serving size" way smaller than anyone might imagine. To figure the amount of calories you're eating, you will need to be very aware of what the manufacturer says is one "serving."

Example: A small snack pack of two cookies may say "200 calories," but when you look at the "serving size," it says "one cookie" and "servings per container: 2." That means that if you eat the contents of the little snack pack, and most of us do, you'll be consuming a whopping 400 calories!

Total Fat:

This part of the label came into being when the nutrition establishment still believed that fat was the most important component in food to watch. It's not. The "total fat" is less useful than it might be, because it does not tell you how much of that fat is coming from valuable, healthy fats like omega-3's, and omega-9's — the kinds found in fish and olive oil for example. It does, however, tell you how much of that fat is saturated — which many nutritionists now believe is not nearly as damaging as once thought. Some saturated fat — especially from natural sources like eggs and coconut — isn't bad at all. It's trans-fats you have to watch out for — and they won't be on the label until 2006 (see below.)

Important: Beginning in 2006, manufacturers will be required to list trans-fats on the label. Trans fats should be as low as possible — preferably zero. They are far more damaging than saturated fats. To find them, look in the ingredients for "partially hydrogenated" oil. If you see that listed, don't buy it and don't eat it!


This number is far less important than we once believed, so much so as to be virtually meaningless for most of the population. Why? Because we now know that dietary cholesterol (i.e. the kind found in food and listed on the label) has virtually no relationship to the amount of cholesterol found in the blood.

Important: There is a tiny fraction of the population with a condition known as hypercholesterolemia. If you have this, your body doesn't regulate cholesterol effectively, and you may be more sensitive than normal people to dietary cholesterol. You are the only folks who need to be watching the cholesterol number on the nutrition facts label.


Many packaged foods are high in sodium, so this is a useful number to know. The worst offenders are processed, packaged, and canned foods. The new dietary guidelines suggest that you keep your sodium intake to 2,300 mg (approximately 1 tsp of salt) of sodium per day.

Important: Though the standard medical advice is to limit salt (sodium) to reduce blood pressure, lowering it too much can be a problem as well. A low sodium diet can be hard to follow, and severe sodium avoidance (500mg a day) will almost certainly result in dehydration. Just as important for everyone is to increase potassium, which needs to be in balance with sodium. Most modern diets are very high in sodium, and very low in potassium. Instead of throwing out your salt shaker, try substituting potassium chloride for salt. Potassium is found in fruits and vegetables, and is not listed on the nutrition facts label.

Total Carbohydrate:

Conventional advice has always been to eat carbs for energy, but this is far from the whole truth. Actually too many carbs raise blood sugar and insulin which, in susceptible people, can lead to overweight, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. While it's fine to have an occasional food or snack that is primarily carbohydrates (an apple, for example), in general you want your carbs to be balanced with protein and fat. Many nutritionists are moving away from high carb diets, and moving toward the view that 40% (or even less) of your daily calories from carbs is plenty for most people.

Important: Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Underneath "Total Carbohydrate" you will see "Dietary Fiber" and "Sugar." Fiber, although technically carbohydrate, does not impact blood sugar, and should be as high as possible. Dozens of studies have demonstrated the health benefits of high fiber diets on weight loss and diabetes. Fiber may also have a role in the prevention of some cancers. Look for a dietary fiber number as high as possible and a "sugars" number as low as possible.

Tip: When reading cereal labels, a good standard is 5 and 5: A serving should have at least 5 grams of fiber and preferably no more than 5 grams of sugar.


Protein is essential for everything your body needs to keep running efficiently, including muscles, bones, enzymes, and hormones. Most older people do not get enough. Although most of the conventional advice on preventing osteoporosis centers around calcium intake, recent studies have shown that elderly people with the weakest bones consumed the least amount of protein.

Tip: Most people do well consuming between 20 and 30 percent of their daily calories from protein. Studies have shown that protein stimulates metabolism. It also makes you feel full, so you're less likely to overeat. In general, try to make protein consist of 20-30 percent of your caloric intake for the day (and there are some metabolic types who do well on even higher intakes.) There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so if a snack contains 100 calories and 8 grams of protein, 32 of those 100 calories come from protein.


Each of the vitamins or minerals on a nutrition facts label — Vitamin A, C, calcium and Iron — is given as a percentage of what's called the "Daily Value." This is the most misleading and probably useless information on the label for several reasons:

One: The four nutrients chosen are fairly arbitrary — a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals are needed for optimal health, not just these four.

Two: The "daily values" are based on a hypothetical diet of 2000-2500 calories which most people are not eating, and which may be too many calories for optimal weight management.

And Three: The "daily values" are based on the government's estimation of the total amount of these vitamins and minerals that they think you need. (And we all know how good the government is at figuring out our health needs.)

Optimal levels for vitamins and nutrients change with age, stress, health, and activity level, and many older people need far more than the "minimum" that the government believes you should be getting.

Important: The bottom of a nutrition facts label frequently contains a "Footnote," which is a summary of what the government calls "Daily Values:" how much fat, carbohydrate, fiber, cholesterol and sodium you should be consuming for a hypothetical diet of 2000-2500 calories.

These figures are very confusing and highly debatable — especially the suggested intake of 300 grams of carbohydrate which for most people is way too much for either weight management or health. In addition, the "Daily Values" do not distinguish between "good" carbohydrates like fiber and "bad" carbohydrates like pure sugar.

Tip: Disregard the Daily Values. Instead, find the right number of calories for your body — the amount of food that makes you feel best and doesn't put weight on. Get the majority of those calories from lean proteins, healthy fats (no trans fats), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Take a multiple vitamin like Twice Daily Multiple or Twice Daily Essential Packets to insure that you get 100 percent of all your basics. Limit sugar and maximize fiber.

And don't forget the one nutrient that doesn't come with a label, but is essential for health, well-being, weight control, and metabolism: Water. Drink often and plentifully.

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Copyright © July 2006  Jonny Bowden and Low Carb Luxury


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