For decades, consumer advocates have claimed that nutritional labels are misleading or difficult to read. It was a hard fought battle to convince legislators that Trans-Fat content must be noted and addressed, and even then some nutritionists are unhappy.
Alcohol products are still not required to list their caloric content, and some can be as high as thousands of calories per serving. For an individual that is attempting to stay healthy and monitor their own diet (rather than depend on a short list of foods that have been deemed “OK”), this presents some tremendous problems. Discussed below is what you need to know when looking at a nutritional label.
Fat is possibly one of the most misunderstood nutritional components. For a long time, it was exclusively blamed for weight gain until carbohydrates suddenly became public enemy no.1. Even to this day, fat is widely shunned by people who think avoiding it will make them drop weight. Yet not only does fat by itself not expand your waistline, it is actually a necessary dietary component to keep you alive. If you stop eating fat, you will not survive.
The distinction is in types of fat. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are actually good (if not great) for you, while saturated and trans-fats are harmful and potentially lethal. Saturated fat directly contributes to blood cholesterol, artery disease, and weight gain.
Trans-fats, even a small serving, can double your risk of artery disease and other health problems. Avoid trans-fats altogether and attempt to limit your intake of saturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are never directly listed (look for polyunsaturated fats) but chances are you’ll know whether or not the product contains them.
Fat does not make you gain weight; overall caloric content does. Almonds and avocados may look like they have high fat and calorie contents, but most of it is good fats. They are far better for you than an equivalent serving of bacon.
The primary distinction here is between simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates spike your blood sugar and induce your body to store fat. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, provide your body with constant fuel, help keep you full, and do not spike your blood sugar. When reading the label, take the overall carbohydrate content and subtract the fiber and sugar alcohols, and you will have the simple carbohydrate content. Limit this in order to lose weight.
Protein, Sodium, and Nutrients
Protein is generally one of the more straightforward items on the menu. There are various kinds, but you only need to make the distinction if you are bodybuilding or a vegetarian (vegetarians need specific types of protein as few plant sources contain full branch chain amino acids). Sodium, on the other hand, is generally one of the most ignored components. You do not want to eat too much sodium as it can contribute to high blood pressure, bloating, and other diseases.
Finally, there is the section at the bottom that lists nutrients. These are all “bonus” components as they can do little but help you. Ensure that you are purchasing foods that have a diverse combination of vitamins and minerals.