Controlling your weight and improving your health can be as simple as knowing what it is that you’re eating. One of the keys to eating right and avoiding unhealthy products starts with checking the nutrition facts on your food labels. After reading this article, you will see that it’s pretty easy to understand.

When we start looking at labels, it helps to ask a few questions.  What does it all mean?  What should we be looking for?  What are all of these nutrients?  Which nutrients should be high?  Which should be low?  Which should be avoided altogether?

Let's start at the top, and then work our way down.

Serving Size

Right under the word “Nutrition Facts”, at the very top of all food labels, is the serving size. The serving size is one of the most important pieces of information on the label.  All of the nutrition information shown is based on this serving size.  If we ignore the serving size, then the rest of the information is useless to us.

Depending on what we are eating or drinking, the serving size could be described in a few different ways. It will usually be in grams, ounces, cups, or pieces. Often the serving size is given in more than one unit of measure.

For example, “Serving Size: 4 Pieces (100g)”.

With this example, we know that the nutritional facts are based on a serving size of 4 pieces (or 100 grams) of that food. This means that if you were to eat 2 pieces (or 50g), you can cut all of the nutritional information in half.  If, however, you ate 8 pieces (200g), then you should double all of the nutrition facts. This is all pretty easy to figure out when your food's serving size is actually listed in "pieces" (or even something like "cups" or "scoops"), but often this is not the case.

Serving sizes tend to be given in a unit of measurement that is nearly impossible to tell by eye.  Grams and ounces may be difficult to distinguish unless you weigh your portions out on a food scale.  Most food scales weigh food in both grams and ounces.  Obviously, this isn't very practical if you are eating out, but for when you're home, it's perfect.  For times when a food scale is not an option, you can estimate the serving size based on the servings per container.  More helpful tips for determining serving size without having to rely on a scale can be found in our article “Eating Right Is All in Your Hands."

Servings per Container

Serving per container tells you how many of the above serving sizes are found in the entire box/bag/can/jar/package/whatever container that your food came in.  This is pretty simple.  If a serving size is 2 cups, and it says, "Servings per Container: 5," that means there are 10 cups in that container.  If a bottle claims that there are 2 servings, then you know that the nutritional facts given apply to a serving size of one half of the bottle.

Calories

Next on the label are the calories.  This represents the total calories in exactly 1 serving of the food/drink. If you are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight, calories are easily the most important nutritional fact on the entire label. 

Calories are energy. If you consume more total calories than your body actually needs for energy, then you gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than your body needs for energy, you lose weight. These, however, are just the basics, if you want to know more, you can check out our article, “What are Calories”

Also keep in mind the serving size.  If you are eating/drinking exactly 1 serving, then the calorie information given is the number of calories that you have consumed. However, if you ate 2 servings, you must now double the amount of calories to figure out how many you are actually consuming. If you ate 3… you do the math. The same goes for if you ate half of 1 serving (divide all the nutrition facts in half).

Calories from Fat

"Calories" already includes the "calories from fat" (as well as calories from protein and carbs). So, you already know the total calories in 1 serving.  Then, what are calories from fat, and why is it shown on food labels?

That's actually a good question.  Fat content is important to know, as high levels of fat negatively affect your overall health, and can lead to heart disease. However, this does not mean that cutting out fat is a healthy solution.  Dieticians recommend that a little less than one third of your total calories for the day come from fat.  As you’ll see below, nutritional facts panels also contain information on the Total Fat in a serving.  Since there are nine calories per gram of fat, you could figure the Calories from Fat out for yourself, but the “calories from fat” section does the math for you.

Total Fat

Working your way down on nutritional facts, you’ll find that Total Fat is next. This is the total amount of fat in 1 serving size. Please notes this is the Total Fat, because the next few nutritional facts listed are often specific types of fat.  Remember you do not need to add them all together, because "total fat" is already listed. Since we already know that one gram of fat has 9 calories, we can figure out that food that has 10 grams of fat contains 90 calories from fat.

Paying attention to the amount of total fat and the amount of each type of fat is important. Because there are different types of fat, it's hard to say where you want the total fat of your food to be. Some forms of fat are very unhealthy, and should be avoided as much as possible, while others are actually good for you. You’ll learn which types you want to be high and which you want to be low next, as each type of fat is explained.

Saturated Fat

Just below "total fat" is usually a list of anywhere from 1-4 specific types of fat contained in 1 serving. While only some of these fats may be listed on certain food labels, these indented nutrition facts are definitely important, and should always be paid attention to. The first one listed is saturated fat, and it is the fat listed most often. Saturated fat also happens to be one of the so-called "bad" fats. Now, how "bad" it actually is too complicated of a topic to get into here. (We will have an article coming soon on Fat).  I will say, however, that it definitely shouldn't be avoided completely, nor does it really deserve its reputation as the devil of the fat world. It should still be limited in most people's diets, though, with a maximum of 1/3 of your total fat intake being a common recommendation.

Trans Fat

One thing few people will debate is how bad trans fat is. As a possible cause of heart disease (among other things), this is the fat that you want to avoid completely. In the opinion of many experts, if you see any trans fat on your food label, you should most likely not eat that food at all... ever.  Trans fats are seldom found in nature, and are almost always artificially created.  As a result, your body can’t process these fats, and they end up clogging your arteries and causing health problems for you.

There is something else you should know about trans fat. Food labels don't tell you the whole truth. You see, the FDA has this rule about trans fat that says that if 1 serving of food contains less than 0.5 grams, food companies are allowed to put "Trans Fat: 0" in their nutrition facts. It's insane, I agree, but, this is how it is. That means your food may say it contains 0 grams of trans fat per serving yet still actually contain 0.4999 grams of it. That means in this example, if you ate 2-4 servings of this food, you'd eat about 1-2 grams of trans fat and not even know it. There is a way to spot trans fat lie in action, though.

Look through the ingredients of the food. If you see  any mention of the words "hydrogenated", "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening," then whatever food you are looking at contains some amount of trans fat, whether the food label says it does or not. So, if an amount of trans fat is listed in the nutrition facts, then it obviously contains trans fat. However, if it says 0 grams, yet has any of those three words I just mentioned in its ingredients, then it still contains trans fat.  The only way to know for sure that it doesn't contain trans fat is to see both "trans fat: 0" and none of these words anywhere in the ingredients.

Some examples of foods that contain significant amounts of these two "bad fats" are chips and cookies, fast food, pastries, and many of the snacks we label as “junk food”.

Polyunsaturated Fat and Monounsaturated Fat

Now that the two "bad" fats are out of the way, next on the list of fats are polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. These are the good guys. While the above "bad" fats can cause a variety of health problems, "good" fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated actually prevent health problems.

Often, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats aren’t actually listed on food labels. This is because they're just not found in too many foods. Saturated and trans fat are far more common, so they are more commonly shown on labels. However, when these two good fats are present, while at the same time there is little to no saturated or trans fat, then congratulations! You are most likely eating healthy food.

Some uninformed people continue to scan the nutrition facts of their food for fat, and, if there is a significant amount, they avoid eating it. If the food is high in total fat because of saturated and/or trans fat, then this would be a good decision. However, if it's due to polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated fat, then that product probably should not be avoided.

Some examples of foods that contain significant amounts of these two "good fats" are fish (and fish oil supplements), nuts and seeds, and olive oil.

Cholesterol

Next up on our food labels is cholesterol, which is a waxy, fat based substance.  Cholesterol is essential in the construction of your cell walls and in manufacturing many of your body’s hormones, bile acids and vitamin D.  However, your body can produce enough cholesterol from fats on its own to make consuming more unnecessary.  While not quite as terrible for the average healthy person as something like trans fat, it is still another nutrition fact that you don't want your diet to be too high in. Some examples of high cholesterol foods include beef, eggs (the yolk), cheese, poultry, and certain junk foods and pastries.

Sodium

Continuing down the list is sodium. While your body actually needs some sodium to function properly, a diet too high in sodium can lead to health problems. So, add sodium to your growing list of nutrients that you'd like to see very little of in your foods. Some examples of foods high in sodium include canned soup and vegetables, salted nuts and pretzels (and potato chips, etc.), ham, bacon, sausage and processed deli meats.

Total Carbohydrate

Now we come to total carbohydrates, aka carbs, which are our body's main source of energy. Unlike fat, carbs contain 4 calories per gram (compared to 9 calories per gram for fat) and, like fat, are equally one of the more misunderstood nutrition facts on food labels. Some people who are interested in weight loss tend to incorrectly think carb content is the most important thing to look for on a food label. However, that title goes to calories, which are the true key to weight control. Now, that doesn't mean carbs should be ignored, because the type of carbs you eat are important, as well.  Not just for weight control, either, but for health in general.

There are basically two types of carbs, simple (bad) and complex (good). While there is no need to eliminate it completely, you most definitely want to limit your intake of simple carbs and get most of your carb intake from complex carbs. Hearing this will probably make you wonder how to tell if a high carb food is complex or simple. I'll tell you how.

The first way is by knowing the types of foods that fit into these two categories. For example, some simple (bad) carbs include white bread, white rice, chips, cookies, candy, soda, and pretty much every type of junk food. Some complex (good) carbs include oatmeal, beans, whole wheat bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and most other fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The second way of knowing if your food is a simple carb or a complex carb is by reading the food labels. Listed directly below total carbohydrate are two other nutrition facts, dietary fiber and sugars. If a food has a good amount of fiber, it's most likely higher in complex carbs. If it has a good amount of sugar, it's filled with simple carbs.

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is one of the few nutrients found on your food label that you actually want to be high. Granted, fiber is rarely ever "high," however, even a few grams per serving is a good thing. Fiber is one of the things that makes a complex carb so good in the first place, as fiber slows the digestion of carbs by our body, which in turn improves its effect on our blood insulin levels. On the other hand...

Sugars

High sugar content in your food usually means the opposite of what high fiber content means.  Simple sugars are the very definition of simple carbohydrates.  Which means very quick digestion and a bad effect on our blood insulin levels. This, in turn, is the cause of many health and weight related problems.

So you can add sugar to your ever increasing list of nutrition facts that you'd want to see very little (or none) of on your food labels.

Protein

The last nutrient on this list is protein, which contains 4 calories per gram, just as carbs do. Protein plays an important role in muscle, cell, organ, and gland function, thereby making it another nutrient that you certainly would not mind seeing a high number next to. Some examples of high protein foods include meat, fish, chicken, turkey, nuts and beans.

Finishing Thoughts

Yes, there are many other nutrients that may or may not be shown on certain food labels; however, the ones discussed above are both the most common and most important nutritional facts listed. Now that you have a good understanding of what it all means, improving your diet, your weight, and your health becomes much simpler.