By, Laura Schocker
One step to fighting the obesity battle might just be printed on the back of your food package. New research published in the journal Agricultural Economics suggests that people who read nutrition labels tend to be slimmer than those who don’t. And that effect was especially pronounced among women: Female study participants who scanned labels were more than eight pounds lighter than their non-label-reading peers.
Of course, it could be that those who look at labels are already more health-conscious, but it can only help to understand what’s really in your food. And while the finding is somewhat intuitive, the truth is that many of us aren’t reading those labels. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that while a third of people say they always look at the calorie counts on a label, in reality only 9 percent really do. And just 1 percent looked at the other components, including total fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size.
“The results of this study suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for Nutrition Facts labels: although most consumers did view labels, very few consumers viewed every component on any label,” study researchers Dan J. Graham, Ph.D. and Robert W. Jeffrey, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, wrote in their findings.
So how can we make label reading more accessible?
Smart Ways To Read A Nutrition Label
And so, accordingly, this should be the first thing you look at when scanning the back of a package. Planning to eat all three servings in a bag of pretzels? You’ll need to remember to multiply all the numbers below by three.
Learn more about how serving sizes are determined here.
Forty calories per serving is considered “low,” 100 calories is “moderate” and 400 calories and beyond is “high,” according to the American Heart Association. Food labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet — you might need more or less depending on your age, weight, gender and activity level. For reference, calculate your recommended daily calorie intake by clicking over to the Mayo Clinic, and speak to your doctor for specific recommendations.
As for that “calories from fat” line? Skip it, Smithson says. “It’s confusing and it doesn’t give as much great information as the other parts of the label.”
In the past, Blatner says, people obsessed about the “total fat” line on the label — but now we know there are actually good fats we need in our diet, namely the heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found, for instance, in fatty fish).
So instead of focusing on the total fat count, look for saturated fats, which raise blood cholesterol levels and increase risk for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends limiting these fats to 7 percent of total daily calories — that adds up to 16 grams for someone on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. Too complicated? Try the 5 and 20 trick: 5 percent of your daily value is considered low and 20 percent is considered high, anything in between is moderate. So aim for 5 percent or less on the things you don’t want (like saturated fat) and 20 percent or more on the things you do.
Trans fats are especially dangerous, as they raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol at the same time, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fortunately, many manufacturers have scrambled to remove trans fat from their products. But Smithson points out that a label can say it has 0 g of trans fat as long as it actually contains .49 grams or fewer — meaning that if you consume more than one serving size, you might still go beyond the daily limits. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient label, which is another way of saying trans fat, the Mayo Clinic says.
Carb counting is important for people with diabetes, Smithson explains, as carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels.
And remember that cholesterol only occurs in animal products — if a bag of peanuts, for instance, is boasting being “cholesterol free,” that’s no great feat.
Plenty of dietary fiber is important for maintaining intestinal regularity and bowel health, Smithson explains. Other benefits include reducing blood cholesterol levels and controlling blood sugar levels, and assisting in weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The USDA recommends consuming 14 g of fiber for every 1,000 calories per day, which adds up to 28 g for someone on a 2,000 calorie diet. But no need to do math — the 5 and 20 rule applies again; shoot to pick foods with 20 percent or more of your daily value of fiber. For a list of surprisingly rich sources of fiber, click here.
Meat may be the most well-known source of protein, but it’s definitely not the only option — for a list of meat-free sources, click here.