The Food Label Code: Deciphering Nutrition Labels
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The Food Label Code: Deciphering Nutrition Labels

I used to spend hours in the grocery store trying to figure out which oatmeal, snacks, or breads to buy - it was a nightmare. I'd set three boxes on a shelf and go over each nutrition label, line by line. One box would be high in protein but also high in carbs, while another would be low-carb but have a higher sodium content.

Trips to the supermarket are a breeze for me now; I'm in and out in no time flat. So, to help you spend more time enjoying your healthy meals and less time buying the ingredients, here are a few tips to follow - and mistakes to avoid - to help you quickly and efficiently read food labels.

  • Serving size: This is probably nutrition mistake #1 at the grocery store. Everything else you read is dependent on serving size. Many cereals - even healthy cereals - have serving sizes far smaller than what most people generally eat. Keep in mind that if you fill up a standard-sized cereal bowl in the morning, you're likely eating twice or even three times the recommended serving size.

  • Fat content: If you've read the Beyond Diet Manual, you are well aware that I think lumping all fats into a "no-no" category is a big nutrition mistake. Thankfully, nutrition labels break out the specific quantities of different kinds of fats in foods. Saturated fats are fine to cook with, but you want most of your foods to have higher levels of poly- and mono- unsaturated fats. And while I don't have many hard and fast rules, if you come across a food item that contains any quantity of trans fats, leave it on the shelf.

  • Sodium: Since it's a preservative, anything you actually pick up off a shelf will likely have some amount of sodium. The goal is to keep your sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams (the recommended daily total). While going for the item with the lowest sodium content is a good start, your best bet when it comes to regulating sodium is to plan out a full day of meals in advance, since some items, like canned soup, contain much higher levels of sodium that you'll want to compensate for at other meals during the day.

  • Ingredients: Nutrition labels are required to include ingredient lists and to provide those lists in order of quantity. So if you're buying tomato sauce, for example, the first ingredient really ought to be tomatoes. Limit ingredients you can't pronounce and leave anything containing high-fructose corn syrup behind.