Nutrition Labels: What’s Important?

  • Do calories count?
  • What’s the difference between fat and saturated fat?
  • How much sodium is too much?

Knowing how to understand a nutrition label is an important key to a healthy lifestyle. Whether you are eating in the UMass dining commons or strolling down the aisle of the grocery store, nutrition labels are everywhere and have the power to tell you what’s healthy and what’s not.

Calories: Many people who are trying to be healthier or lose weight judge what they eat by glancing at the calorie line of the nutrition label to see if it is “too low” or “too high.”  The reason so many people associate calories with weight gain is because our energy comes from calories and if we eat more calories than we burn a day it causes us to gain weight. Instead of worrying about how many calories you eat, worry if those calories are “empty” or not. Empty calories come from saturated fats and added sugars that add calories to your diet with little or no nutrients. For example, eating 250 calories of a snickers bar fills you up with processed sugar and saturated fat compared to eating 250 calories of a salad with grilled chicken that adds protein, vitamin C, A, fiber and many other nutrients to your diet.   Simply looking at how many calories a food has doesn’t really tell you anything! Skip the calorie line and move on to what really matters.

If you don’t check anything else, check these 3!!!!

1. Fat: 20-35% of our daily calories should come from fat but pay close attention to the saturated and trans fat lines! Trans fat has been removed from almost all foods but it is still important to check because it has been linked to many health problems like high cholesterol and heart disease. You should also  limit the amount of saturated fat you are eating because it increases the bad type of cholesterol levels in our blood. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture advises people to eat less than 20 g of saturated fat per day. You want to eat a majority of unsaturated fat which is found in foods like olive oil, nuts, salmon, avocados, etc.

2. Cholesterol: Cholesterol is necessary for normal bodily functions and helps us produce hormones as well as vitamin D. However, too much cholesterol can contribute to heart disease. It is recommended that you eat less than 300 milligrams a day!

3. Sodium: 75% of our daily salt intake comes from processed foods. This is why checking nutrition labels is so important! The average American consumes 3,400 mg of salt per day even though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day. Look out especially for canned foods like soup, frozen foods like frozen pizza or burritos, packaged deli meats and marinades like soy sauce!

Quick Tip: 

For an even faster way to tell how much fat, cholesterol or sodium is in a food check the  % Daily Value line on the right side!


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