What to Look For on Food Labels

February 28, 2011

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food labelIf you find yourself confused when looking over a food label to determine if something is a ???good choice??? or not, you aren???t alone.

By law, food labels list the number of calories per serving, the number of servings per package, the amount of macronutrients in the item (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) along with the amount of any significant vitamins or minerals, and a list of ingredients.

So of all the numbers and facts, which are the most important? Hands down my advice would be to pay the closest attention to calories and the number of servings per package. In general, when it comes to weight loss these are the most important numbers to know.

The number of servings per package is especially important because not keying into this number may lead you to believe something has fewer calories than it actually does. For example, a ???small??? bag of potato chips may list the calories at 274. But upon closer inspection the ???snack size bag??? actually contains 2 servings per package, for a total of 584 calories! To determine the entire bag???s true amount of fat grams, sodium, and the like, you???d also need to double those figures.

After that, take a look at the top five ingredients. Labeling law requires that ingredients must be labeled in order by amount. So if something like ???sugar??? or ???high-fructose corn syrup??? is in the top five, chances are the food isn???t a healthy choice regardless of the number of calories it contains.

Of course, people with medical conditions need to pay attention to the macronutrients too (fat, protein, and carbs). It???s especially important for those with diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, polycystic ovarian disease, and other pre-existing conditions to make sure they know how their nutritional needs differ when it comes to weight loss, something we take into account at The Center for Medical Weight Loss when designing a weight loss program for each client.

After calories, servings per package, and top ingredients, take a look at the sodium content in the package. Dietary guidelines recommend keeping sodium (a.k.a. salt) intake under 2,000 milligrams per day for most people, and under 1,500 for those with high blood pressure and certain other medical conditions.

Also check out the fat content per serving, as well as the ???type??? of fat it is: saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated. In general, saturated fat is known as ???bad??? fat, or the type that can increase heart disease risk, while the two other types are known as ???good??? fat, or the types believed to lower cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors. Aim to keep saturated fat intake as low as you can. At the same time, don???t be fooled by products labeled ???low-fat,??? ???fat-free,??? or other things that sound healthy into thinking that means they are healthy or you can eat as much as you like. Calories still count! And many times, these products contain just as much or even sometimes more calories and things like high-fructose corn syrup than the ???regular??? version.

For example, one well known brand of ???snack bars??? packages itself as a healthy option and a source of whole grains. Sounds good, right? But upon closer inspection, high-fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient! These bars are essentially the equivalent of a candy bar with added fiber.

Another such example is a popular soft drink with the words ???now with antioxidants??? across the front of the label. Don???t be fooled. It???s still soda pop, and the addition of antioxidants doesn???t even begin to make this a healthy choice.

Ironically, some of the healthiest food choices don???t come with a food label at all. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a perfect example! So keep that in mind, too. Foods that come in package, cans, boxes, or bags with labels are often highly processed and not as good of a choice, in general, as foods in their natural, single-ingredient state. So when in doubt, keep it simple.

Dr. Michael Kaplan

Founder and Chief Medical Officer

The Center for Medical Weight Loss

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