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How to Decode Nutrition Labels Like a Pro in 4 Easy Steps

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Nutrition labels can be an incredibly useful resource for those looking to manage their dietary needs. They can help you lose (or gain) weight, manage medical symptoms, and even perform at your best. But ingredients can be confusing, and numerical tables can be more complicated than they seem at first glance. Follow these important tips to make sure you’re using nutrition labels correctly for your needs.

1. Check Serving Sizes

Most Americans eat way, way more than the standard serving size of, well, anything. For example, the serving size for regular Oreos is typically just three cookies — although this varies, depending on the packaging. The rest of the nutrients and percentage values on the label are calculated in relation to that serving size. So, you’ll need to do the math to figure out just how much of a given vitamin, mineral, or macronutrient you’re consuming.

For instance, if you eat three regular Oreo cookies, you’re consuming 130 mg of sodium. But if you sit down to watch TV and wolf down two sleeves from a package, your intake will be considerably higher. If you’re counting calories, or watching your blood pressure, these kinds of differences can quickly add up. That’s why it’s super important to look at the serving size, and multiply each value by the portion you actually consumed.

Tracking serving sizes, calories, and nutrients by hand can quickly turn into a huge pain, or at least a lot of math. A nutrition tracking app can automate these calculations and help you stay on target to reach your goals. There are a multitude of options to help you lose, gain, or maintain weight and track other health metrics as needed. They’re all pretty good; simply choose the best macro tracking app or nutrition app to meet your individual needs and preferences.

2. Understand Percent Daily Value

Percent daily value tells you how much of a given nutrient you’re consuming, relative to your daily food intake. For instance, if you eat a protein bar with 25% DV of calcium, you’ve eaten a quarter of the calcium you need that day. Percent daily value also changes, relative to the amount of servings you consume of a different food. Remember to multiply or divide it by the number of servings, ie. half a protein bar only has 12.5% of the daily calcium you need.

Percent daily value, like serving size, makes some rather silly assumptions about the American diet. For instance, it assumes you eat 2,000 calories a day — a figure based on the average self-reported intake of Americans in 1990. In actuality, most real people eat anywhere from 1,200 to 3,000 calories a day — or more. It all depends on factors like sex, age, height, weight, and whether you’re trying to slim down or bulk up.

Accordingly, the amount of a given nutrient you need isn’t necessarily what it says on the tag. Even if you do eat 2,000 calories a day, those daily values still might not be right for you. Some people are extra sensitive to minerals like sodium and potassium. Others are taking medications that could be unsafe or ineffective when combined with too much of a given vitamin or mineral. For instance, the naturally-occurring vitamin K found in many leafy greens reduces the effectiveness of the blood thinning drug Warfarin.

3. Know Your Needs

If it isn’t clear enough thus far, the point is, everyone has different nutritional needs. The most important part of decoding nutrition facts labels is knowing what makes sense for you. To lose or gain weight (ask your doctor first, if you have any medical conditions), you’ll need to track your calorie consumption. To moderate medical conditions like diabetes or hypertension, you may need to stay aware of salt and sugar.

Your healthcare provider, registered dietician, or nutrition app will help you figure out your specific targets. Other than the calorie count, which is on the right, you’ll usually refer to the left side of the label. Here you can find the exact numbers of each nutrient contained in a food or product. They’ll typically be listed in grams (g), milligrams (mg), or micrograms (mcg). Pay special attention to these units, as there are huge size differences between each one.

When tracking specific nutrients, be sure to factor in any supplements you might be taking regularly. For example, if you’re already taking a daily high-dose vitamin D capsule, added vitamin D in food could push you over the top. Note that, while most vitamins are calculated in mcg on food labels, they can look different on supplements. Many supplement doses are measured in international units, or IU, which are equal to about 0.025 mcg.

4. Avoid the Worst Offenders

Individual needs and preferences are important to understanding health and nutrition. But some things found in common food products are bad for pretty much everyone. For instance, trans fats are known for increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other diseases. Too much saturated fat or cholesterol can also lead to all sorts of cardiovascular issues. Most people should limit their sugar intake, especially of added sugars.

Fats and sugars are listed under nutrition facts, but not all bad ingredients are. It’s important to also check the ingredients list underneath the table of numbers. On most standardized food packaging, ingredients are listed in order of how much is used. For instance, for a product like potatoes, “potatoes” should be the first ingredient on the list, usually followed by oil. And if you notice a lot of unfamiliar chemicals, it might be wise to research before consuming.

This area of the label is also where you’ll find important information about allergies and dangerous chemicals. If a product contains nuts, dairy, shellfish, or other known allergies, you’ll see that warning there, in bold. Some sweeteners and other chemicals are also known to exacerbate common health issues. If a product contains the sweetener phenylalanine, which is dangerous for some people, you’ll find that in this section.

Being Realistic

Nutrition labels can be an extremely useful tool for improving your diet or managing medical issues. But take caution not to get too intense about reading every label, counting calories, or avoiding the “bad” stuff. As long as it’s safe (don’t eat something you’re allergic to), it’s fine to indulge every once in a while. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to follow every recommendation to the letter; just focus on small, manageable changes.

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