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Navigating Food Labels

By: Dianne Villano, CPFI


These tips will help you understand food labels before your next visit to the supermarket.

Serving size matters

Just because the food label lists a certain number of calories per serving does not mean you'll get that many calories when you eat what's in the container. You probably consume much more than the serving size listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Many times the amounts are just not realistic, and most people--rather than counting out 15 chips or measuring a three-ounce serving--either fool themselves into thinking they're eating the "right amount" or ignore it altogether. And because the entire Nutrition Facts panel is based on the "serving size," it's very important to get it right or all the information will be inaccurate.

So, what should you do? Try to get an accurate measurement once in a while. I generally recommend breaking out the measuring utensils for a month until you get proficient at eyeballing.

Comparing calories from food to food is also confusing. Because food densities differ,o a volume-to-volume approach doesn't always work. It would be simpler to comparison-shop if there were a "calories per gram" standard on the panel--similar to the way supermarkets have "unit" pricing.

Calories are key

The reality is that calories are a good thing; they're a source of energy. The problem arises when we eat too many of them. Females typically need 1500 to 1,800 calories or fewer per day, while males need typically need about 2,200. How many calories you need will depend on many factors. These include your activity level, amount of lean mass, and minutes per week spent in high-intensity exercise. Do keep in mind that you don't easily "work off" extra calories:

  • For every extra 100 calories you eat each day, you would have to walk for an additional 25 minutes to burn it off. A small second piece of cake is worth maybe two hours of walking non-stop--about eight miles.
  • You might burn 100 calories in an hour of jogging on a treadmill. So if you eat that large hamburger, you've got to jog for eight to ten hours to burn it off. Do you have that kind of time?
  • You need to do about 10,000 situps to burn off the calories contained in one pound of body fat. Contrary to popular misconception, situps do not build great abs. They do work your hip flexors and do contribute to back problems.

Figuring Out Fats

What about "Calories from Fat" on the Nutrition Facts panel? As a rule of thumb, a low-fat food should have no more than 20 percent of the total calories from fat. So if you have a food with 200 calories, and 100 calories are from fat, do the math. Fifty percent of its calories are from fat. But that doesn't mean this food is "bad." It does mean it's not low-fat.

We've come a long way since the days of "cutting the fat" We need fat in our diets. The AHA and ADA recommend 20 to 30 percent of our daily food intake should come from fat, with no more than 10% of your daily calories coming from saturated (bad) fats. If you are attentive, you can reduce saturated fats to nearly zero. But if you don't accomplish that, it's probably not a big deal. Your body is equipped to deal with some saturated fat. There are, however, some fats it's not equipped to deal with.

More, below....

The Bad Fats

Saturated. These fats, which are listed on the label, are found primarily in animal products like meat, whole-milk dairy products, poultry skin, and egg yolks. Consuming too many of these fats can raise your "bad" cholesterol levels and contribute to arteriosclerosis. But now much is too much? We don't really know. But if you make these fats incidental to your diet rather than prominent in it, you'll probably be in the safe zone. That is, if you eat a lean steak that contains saturated fat--that's probably OK. But drowning your beans in butter--that's fat you didn't have to add to eat that food.

Transfats. This type of fat was created to increase food shelf life and to increase the solidity of food for texture and appearance.

To make this fat, manufacturers start with healthy polyunsaturated oils and blast them with hydrogen gas to solidify them. This process makes these fats toxic. You cannot eat these fats in moderation. They are simply toxic. Think of them as gasoline when they are present in food, and treat them accordingly.

Unfortunately, trans fat won't be listed on the label until 2006 (this article appeared in 2005). So, you need to look for transfats clues. Even so, you won't find "trans fat" on restaurant menus. So you need to look at the foods likely to contain transfats. These "foods" include:

  • Margarines (unless they say "no trans fat" on the label)
  • Shortenings
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Fast foods
  • Most commercial baked goods such as bread, buns, pies, cookies, cakes, crackers, and doughnuts.

Check the ingredients list, and be on the lookout for hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil. Those are transfats. Also, many products now promote that they are "transfat free." Look for this on the front of the packaging.



The Good Fats

Unsaturated fats are found in products derived from plant sources. These include vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. There are two main categories:

  1. Monounsaturated: These fats are found in high concentrations in canola, peanut, and olive oils, as well as olives, peanuts, peanut butter, and avocados. Studies have found that monounsaturated fat helps lower LDL (the "bad") cholesterol and raise HDL (the "good") cholesterol levels in your body.
  2. Polyunsaturated: These fats are prevalent in sunflower, corn, safflower, cottonseed, and soybean oils. They are also prevalent in nuts, free-range eggs, and fish (omega-3). These fats--especially the omega-3s--have been found to help lower total cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease.

Unfortunately, neither type of "good" fat is required to be listed on the food label. But some companies do provide this information. You can also subtract the saturated fat from the total, and check the ingredient list for trans fat clues--anything left over is probably "good" fat.

Carbohydrates are not all bad

Carbs are taking a bit of a bashing these days, even though they are an important nutrient and necessary for survival. Foods that contain carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, milk, grains, and yogurt. Carbohydrates are also found in any food that contains sugar--such as breads, cookies, cakes, soft drinks, syrups, and, of course, table sugar.

Clearly, there are different types of carbs and they are not all created equal. While most carbs--sugar is the best example--are digested and turned into blood sugar, other carbs behave differently. In fact, if you are looking at the Nutrition Facts panel, you will see carbohydrates broken down into two categories: dietary fiber and sugar.

What exactly is dietary fiber? Simply put, it's the indigestible parts of plant cells. Although it is a carbohydrate, fiber does not convert to glucose and thus does not raise your blood sugar the way other carbohydrates typically do. And it makes you feel full longer, which is a good thing.

The "sugars" section includes those that are present naturally in the food (such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit), as well as sugars added to the food during processing. In most cases, your body can't distinguish between the two. If you're interested in finding out whether a sweetener has been added, check the ingredients list for terms such as "sugar (sucrose)," "fructose," "maltose," "lactose," "honey," "syrup," "corn syrup," "high-fructose corn syrup," "molasses," and "fruit juice concentrate."

A few clues

The food label lists a Percent Daily Value (%DV) for each nutrient. These percentages are helpful for determining a food's nutritional value--or lack thereof. They tell you whether one serving of food contributes a lot or a little to your total nutrient intake for the day (based on an average 2000-calorie diet). Be aware that most women on a fat reduction food plan will take in closer to 1500 calories a day, so adjust accordingly

The above text edited by Supplecity staff. We take that liberty with all articles posted here. We have the deepest respect for Ms. Villano's knowledge, and encourage you to visit her Website:



Copyright © Custom Bodies, Inc. 2005

Article written by Dianne Villano, President of Custom Bodies. Custom Bodies has been serving the bay area since 1996 with weight loss & fitness programs for every fitness level. Dianne is a personal fitness instructor certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a frequent speaker on health and fitness related topics with articles published in over 20 media outlets including Weight Loss & Obesity Resource Center, Women’s Exercise Network, Self Growth , Gateway to Beauty & Life tools for Women.

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