Kara Morton is a third year medical student at University of Louisville School of Medicine. You can follow her on instagram.
The healthiest foods—vegetables, fruits, and other natural whole foods—come without nutrition facts labels! However, it is important to be familiar with food labels and nutrition information for a variety of packaged whole foods and packaged processed foods. The following graphic from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans makes it easy:
Take a look at the servings per container and serving size at the top. This tells you the size of each serving and how many servings are in the entire container. One serving size of your favorite snack may be much smaller than you are used to eating in one sitting!
The calories per serving are the next number to pay attention to, and it is usually the largest number on the label. This tells you how many calories are in one serving. To find out how many calories are in your meal, first measure the amount of food. This allows you to determine how many servings you are eating. Then you can multiply the number of servings by the total calories per serving. In the example given, eating the entire container (8 servings x 230 calories per serving) would add up to 1,840 calories!
The next section on the food label tells you how many grams of each macronutrient—fat, carbohydrates, and proteins—are in one serving of the food. You will notice that the “total fat” section is subdivided into saturated fat and trans fat (you may see unsaturated fat on some labels). This means that, of the 8 grams of total fat in one serving, 1 of those grams is saturated fat. Likewise, the total carbohydrate section is divided into fiber and sugars. Pay attention to the added sugar section and try to eat as little added sugar as possible!
It is also important to note the sodium content in this section. It is recommended that we eat less than 2300mg of sodium per day.
The next section highlights the vitamins and minerals present in one serving of the food. This section may change from one food to the next since different foods will be composed of varying levels of each nutrient. Try to get a variety of vitamins and minerals from food every day. However, keep in mind that fruits and vegetables, the foods that often come without a nutrition label, contain the highest levels of vitamins and minerals!
The last section explains the concept of % (percent) daily value, referring to the numbers down the righthand column of the label. These numbers are based on a standard 2,000 calorie diet and tell you how much of your recommended daily value of each nutrient is being met with one serving of the food. For example, in the label above, one serving of that food provides 10% of your daily recommended fat intake.
For more information on the daily recommended values of each nutrient, check out our macronutrients blog post!
For more information about nutrition facts, visit this page
For more detailed information, visit any of the following pages:
- The American Heart Association diet and lifestyle webpage
- An ethical plant-based vegan diet,
- The American College of Lifestyle Medicine
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- USDA’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans