Eating a healthy diet is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, the benefits of eating healthy include helping you live longer, keeping your eyes, skin, and teeth healthy, and supporting your muscles and boosting immunity—among others. But in order to eat healthy, you have to know what makes up healthy food, and nutrition labels can be a great place to start.
You’re probably already familiar with nutrition labels to some degree—you’ve almost definitely seen them on the back of some of your favorite packaged food items. But reading and interpreting them can be a bit confusing. Having a better understanding of how to read and compare nutrition labels will help you and your family choose the best food products for your diet.
You can think of the nutrition label as split up into two parts; the main or top section, and the footnote. The top section contains serving information, calories, percent daily value, and nutrients—all of which we’ll get into below. These will all vary depending on the food or beverage. The footnote at the bottom explains the percent daily value, and gives the number of calories used for general nutrition advice.
The first thing to look at when checking out Nutrition Facts is the serving information. This will tell you the number of servings in the container as well as the serving size. The serving size reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink, not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.
It’s important to realize that all the nutrients shown on the label refer to the size of the serving, not the entire package. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package, to understand what you’re eating or drinking. For example, if 1 serving equals 1 cup, and you eat 2 cups, you would be consuming 2 servings. That’s two times the calories and nutrients shown on the label.
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. To achieve or maintain a certain body weight, you may want to try to balance the number of calories you eat or drink with the number of calories your body uses. While an ideal intake of calories will vary depending on your age, metabolism, and levels of physical activity, the general recommendation is 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men.
It’s important to note that not all calories are created equal. Calories from healthy foods that are packed with good nutrients are different from calories from junk food or certain packaged goods. Quality matters much more than quantity. When possible, it’s best to get your calories from whole, unprocessed foods.
This section of the nutrition label shows you key nutrients that impact your health. This is where you can use the label to support your personal dietary needs—look for foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of the nutrients you may want to limit.
The label also includes both Added Sugars and Total Sugars. Total Sugars include sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods and beverages, while Added Sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods, foods packaged as sweeteners, sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
In general, you’ll want to consume less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, as these can be associated with adverse health effects. Nutrients you’ll want to get more of include Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium, as these are nutrients on the label that Americans generally do not get the recommended amount of.
The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. The Daily Values are reference amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day.
The %DV does two things—it shows how much a nutrient in a serving of a food contributes to a total daily diet and it helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.
The rule of thumb is that 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, while 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high. The general recommendation is to choose foods that are higher in %DV for Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium and lower in %DV for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars more often than not.
The %DV is useful when you’re comparing foods, and also when you’re purchasing products that claim to be “light,” “low,” and “reduced.” You can simply compare %DVs in each food product to see which one is higher or lower in a particular nutrient.
Understanding how to read a nutrition label can go a long way in informing your diet and allowing you to eat healthy. While the numbers and labels may at first seem confusing, understanding what they mean will get better with practice. If you have questions about what nutrients are right for you, feel free to talk to your healthcare provider to find the best diet for you and your health needs.