It took me years to figure out how to read a nutrition label. And so I want to explain it so you can learn it faster than me. I talk a lot about the importance of reading nutrition labels in my 4-Week Challenges. I wanted to write it down in blog form so it can be a resource for you to use, to learn from, or even look at when you’re grocery shopping.
Nutrition labels can be overwhelming, what exactly are you supposed to look at anyway?! Fat content? Calories? Fiber? All of it? It’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. Keep reading and you’ll have a step by step process to help you read a nutrition label like a pro.
I never paid any attention to food labels for the longest time. Then in college I started looking at the number of calorie content in an attempt to eat fewer calories. Little did I know that low calorie doesn’t equal healthy. And slowly I began to learn more about nutrition and I began to read nutrition labels differently.
Please note, this is how I read nutrition labels. I don’t worry about numbers. My view on nutrition highly impacts how I read a nutrition label. I’m more focused on what my food is made of rather than the numbers on a package.
But some numbers do matter to me, not so I can count them but so I can be aware of the bigger picture and know how much of an ingredient is in a product.
In this blog post, I’m going to show you how I read a nutrition label, what I look for, and what’s most important to me. Reading labels isn’t overwhelming or time consuming anymore. It’s second nature now and requires no time at all! I hope that this blog post helps you navigate food labels, helps you learn what to look for when choosing foods, and eases some anxiety over reading a nutrition label.
My Simple Strategy for Reading a Food Label
I honestly find that looking at two important things on a nutrition label give me all the information I need about the product.
First thing I look at: Ingredients
I think the ingredients list is the most important part of the nutrition label. It’s what I ook at it first. Knowing the ingredients makes it easy for me to decide whether or not I want to keep going down my list. Often times I can easily make a decision off of just looking at the ingredients as to whether or not I want to buy the product.
The order of the ingredients
Ingredients are written in order of how prevalent they are in the product. So if sugar is the first ingredient, the product is mostly made of sugar. So it’s important to look at the order of ingredients as well.
The name of the ingredients
Next, I look for words I don’t recognize or can’t even pronounce. If I don’t know what they are, I ditch the product or pull out my phone and google it. 99% of the time if I don’t know what it is it’s not good for me anyways. I stay clear of products that include artificial coloring (yes, even for my girls!), high fructose corn syrup, fake sugars like sucralose and aspartame, among other ingredients.
Second thing I look for: Sugar
I know, I know, this isn’t fun to talk about. But unfortunately, sugar is added to almost everything now. It’s so important to check the nutrition labels for sugar content and ask yourself, how much sugar is in this product and what is the source?
I personally limit my intake of refined sugars. Instead I look for products that use coconut sugar, dates, maple syrup, and honey as sweeteners. I use these sweeteners at home when baking or wanting to sweeten something. We actually don’t even have regular white sugar in our house. Sure, a treat once in a while is okay but I’d much rather use unrefined sugars.
I don’t personally count anything and that includes how much sugar I eat in a day. But I do know the sources of my food and my diet is low in sugar.
If you do want to count, for fun or just see where you fall in sugar consumption, the American Heart Association recommends women should only consume 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of sugar a day. This sounds like a lot but when you begin to read labels you’ll see it adds up quickly.
When I look at a label for sugar content I look at two things: how much sugar (i.e. grams) and the source of the sugar (i.e. ingredients). I’m okay with a product that has sugar in it if it’s from natural sources like dried fruit. But I won’t buy dried fruit that has added sugar to it.
Third thing I look at: Carbohydrates
Like I said, I’m not a counter. But I do like looking at the number of carbohydrates in a product. With keto and paleo diets being super popular right now many are afraid of carbohydrates. But again, our bodies need carbohydrates for energy. Plus, I’m all about keeping our nutrition as balanced as possible.
The issue is that most of the sources of our carbohydrates come from unhealthy sources and our diets are filled with processed carbohydrates. It’s important to get most of your carbohydrates from whole foods like vegetables, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, and potatoes.
Another thing I look at when I look at how many grams of carbohydrates are in a product is the bigger picture. I quickly skim the fiber content and the protein (which we will talk about next) because this also will give me an idea of how it will affect my blood sugar levels.
The net carbs (Carbohydrates - Fiber = Net carbs) is what directly impact your blood sugar levels. So I’ll review this quickly to see how many carbs are in something because I know my body works well when there is a good balance of carbs and protein.
Third thing I look at: Protein
This is usually just an added bonus and something I look at in relation to everything else in the product. If something is higher in carbs, I like to know if the protein will balance it out so I don’t spike my blood sugar levels (and experience a crash later). A Larabar is a good example.
If I was going through my checklist I’d look at the ingredients first: Cashews and dates. Love that they are simple ingredients!
Next, I’d look at the sugar content: 15 grams of sugar. It’s a little high but I know the sugar is coming solely from the dates and I’m okay with that.
The third thing I look for is the carbohydrates: 25 grams. Not too bad. There are 2 grams of fiber so I can subtract that and it would then be 23 grams of net carbs.
The last thing I’d look at is the protein: 5 grams. Which is low especially with the number of carbs.
With all this information I then look at the whole picture.
Sugar: 15 grams but only from dates
Carbohydrates: 23 net carbs
Protein: 5 grams
For me personally, this bar has a lot of sugar and carbs and not enough protein to balance it out. I know my body and this would spike my blood sugars too much and wouldn’t be all that filling.
But, I do love Larabars because of their clean ingredients and they’re curb most people’s appetite! I often use them as a quick snack option for my girls.
What I don’t look at: Calories
This might be shocking to most of you but I do not look at calories. If I do, it’s just for fun. They don’t hold any value or meaning to me. I am much more worried about what my food is made of (i.e. ingredients) and how much sugar is in the food I consume.
It’s important to know that not all calories are created equal. What I mean is that 90 calories in a candy bar is going to affect your body way more than 90 calories of avocado. Which do you think is going to fuel your body better? The avocado, of course!
I personally would much rather eat something with higher calories that is made with quality wholesome ingredients than something low in calories but filled with junk. It’s more satisfying and I feel better too.
One more note about calories, counting calories isn’t a longterm solution. My passion is to show that you don’t have to count calories or feel deprived to be healthy and even lose weight.
That’s why I created my 4-Week Meal Plans. To make eating healthy simple and easy for busy women who want to make healthy meals for themselves and their families. This is for women who want to create a healthy lifestyle that truly lasts and stop jumping from one diet to the next.
What I don’t look at: Fat
In a day where low fat, and fat-free labels are everywhere I can see why you might be worried about this. But I don’t believe fat is making us fat. Our bodies actually need healthy sources of fat.
Low fat or fat-free items often aren’t any healthier. Oh, the food industry would love for you to believe that it is but if they remove fat from food they are also removing the flavor. So what do they do? Add sugar! So it’s important to look at the ingredients to see what is being added to your food.
Many studies have shown those who are eating low fat and fat-free foods aren’t actually any thinner or healthier either! My best advice: ditch the low fat and fat-free mentality and choose whole foods.
The number one item women struggle giving up in this area? Yogurt! Sure, it’s low in calories. But it’s often loaded with sugar, fake sugars, and many other additives and chemicals. Instead, choose an unsweetened yogurt and top it with berries and granola for a more satisfying and healthier snack or breakfast.
Don’t be overwhelmed.
The last thing I want is for you to feel overwhelmed right now. Start small. Start by looking at the ingredient list in a food product. This is honestly the most important step to me. Reading the first few ingredients of a food often prevents me from looking at the rest.
I promise it becomes second nature. It might feel tedious and annoying at first but it truly does get easier and easier. Now that I know what I’m looking for reading food labels is a quick, simple process! And the more you do it the faster the process will become for you as well.
I’d love to hear from you! Do you read nutrition labels, what do you look for? Was this blog post helpful in shedding light on what to look for?
About the author:
Kara Swanson is a certified nutritionist and founder of Life Well Lived. She is married to her best friend and the proud mother of three. Her passion is to make nutrition simple+easy+delicious!