We all took a bit of a break during the holidays to enjoy the goodies of the season…the cakes, the cookies, the pies, and candies.  But now is the time to get back to basic healthy eating habits. Start by reading the nutritional labels on the foods you eat. No more ignoring these labels as you stuff unhealthy foods in your mouth! Just because you’re not reading the label, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have calories. We all read labels, but how many of us really understand what we’re reading? Start by knowing what to read, and what to ignore. A quick scan of any nutritional label is all you need.


Common nutritional label

  1. Serving Size: Here’s where many food manufacturers will try to fool you. After looking at the calories, you may think the food looks pretty healthy until you realize that the portion is ridiculously small.  But on the same token, we Americans have a distorted perception of what a normal portion is. Here’s a quick lesson in portion sizes:
    • 3 oz. meat: size of a deck of cards or bar of soap—the recommended portion for a meal
    • 8 oz. meat: size of a thin paperback book
    • 3 oz. fish: size of a checkbook
    • 1 oz. cheese: size of 4 dice
    • Medium potato: size of a computer mouse
    • 2 Tbs. peanut butter: size of a ping pong ball
    • 1/2 cup pasta: size of a tennis ball
    • Average bagel: size of a hockey puck.
  2. % Daily Value: These percentages show the portion of daily allowances that one serving contains. But what percentages are considered healthy? Obey the 5/20 rule:
    • 5 percent: cholesterol and saturated fat should go no higher than this
    • 20 percent: vitamins, minerals, and fiber should hover around 20%
  3. Fat: Look at not only the total fat but the kind of fat. Unsaturated fat (think “uncomplicated” = good) help lower your risk of heart disease, help give you shinier hair and softer skin. Trans fat and saturated (think “bloated” = bad) raise your bad cholesterol and lower the good. They also increase the risk of heart disease.
  4. Carbohydrates: Carbs are like fuel for your body. But be sure you’re eating the complex kind of carbohydrate. How to tell? The greater the difference between the total carbohydrate and sugars, the healthier the food. For example:
    • 20 g carbo – 3 g sugar = 17 (this food is healthier than the one below)
    • 20 g carbo – 17 g sugar = 3 (this food has lots of sugar
  5. Sodium: So many processed foods have high amounts of sodium. But how many milligrams (mg = the measurement used on the label) is too high? Instead, look at the % Daily Value as a better judge and don’t pick one too high.
    • 2300 milligrams of sodium in table salt is about 1 tsp of salt.
    • People with hypertension should eat no more than 1500 mg of sodium a day (about 2/3 teaspoon of salt).
    • African Americans and middle-aged and older adults should also eat no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day. The reason is that these groups have a high risk of developing hypertension.
  6. Fiber: Foods higher in fiber fill you up for longer periods of time without adding the calories. Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, includes all parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest or absorb. Dietary fiber — found mainly in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes — is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. But fiber can provide other health benefits as well, such as lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  7. Ingredient list: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Look for hidden sugar. Most sugars lack nutritional value, and there’s probably more in the food than you realize. Many manufacturers will put many different kinds of sugar in food so that they can be listed towards the bottom of the list rather than lumped together as “sugar”. Some sugars, real and artificial, and their names:
    • sucralose
    • saccharin
    • aspartame
    • corn syrup
    • fruit juice concentrate
    • maltose
    • dextrose
    • sucrose
    • honey
    • maltodextrin
    • high fructose corn syrup