Get to know your food labels
You can ignore the carb counts, but pay strict attention to serving size, calories, and fat types.
One of the keys to making better choices in your diet is learning to read a food label—not marketing promises such as "high fiber" and "heart healthy," but the Nutrition Facts label. It takes a little know-how, so we turned to Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
SERVING SIZE: The Nutrition Facts label information is based on one serving, not one package. Many packages contain more than one serving. "You have to know that if you eat three servings, you're getting three times the nutrients, the good and the bad," says McManus.
CALORIES: McManus advises that you ignore how many calories come from fat in the right-hand column, because this figure doesn't have a direct relationship to your health. Instead, look at the amount of calories per serving in the left-hand column and fit it into your daily calorie goal.
CHOLESTEROL: The majority of foods high in dietary cholesterol don't have Nutrition Facts labels on them—for example, eggs and shellfish. Surprisingly, saturated fats and trans fats in the diet do more to raise blood cholesterol levels than cholesterol in the diet. So focus on avoiding saturated fats and trans fats.
SODIUM: Try to limit your sodium intake in main meals to 650 milligrams (mg). For many people, 2,300 mg per day is a realistic goal, but the American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg per day for people who are older than 50, are African American, or have diabetes, hypertension, or kidney disease.
CARBOHYDRATES, FIBER, SUGARS: Disregard total carbohydrates. "Do look at fiber, and always choose foods that are higher in fiber," says McManus. "I like cereals to have a minimum of 5 grams of fiber per serving; the same with crackers. For sugars, look beyond the nutrition facts and look instead at the ingredients. Avoid foods with added sugars such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, brown sugar, honey."
TOTAL FAT, SATURATED FAT, TRANS FAT: Ignore the total fat; look at the types of fat. "Trans fat should be zero. Saturated fat should be based on 7% of your calories for the day," says McManus. Since each gram of fat contains 9 calories, you can determine your saturated fat allowance by multiplying your total daily calories by .07 and dividing the number by 9. For instance, if you're allowed 1,800 calories per day, consume no more than 14 grams of saturated fat
PROTEIN: "Most of us get plenty of protein in our diets, so it is not necessary to pay close attention to protein on the food label," McManus says. "About 50 to 65 grams per day is adequate for most people."
VITAMIN A, VITAMIN C, POTASSIUM, CALCIUM, IRON: If you're not getting enough vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, or iron, go for the brand with the higher percentages of them. The recommended daily allowances of vitamin A are 700 micrograms (mcg) for women and 900 mcg for men; for vitamin C, it's 75 milligrams (mg) for women and 90 mg for men. Both men and women should get at least 4.7 grams of potassium, 1,200 mg of calcium, and 8 mg of iron daily. Spinach is rich in iron, potassium, calcium, and vitamin A. Citrus is a great source of vitamin C. For more food suggestions, go to www.health.
PERCENT DAILY VALUES: Ignore percent daily values. "They're based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Many people need to lose weight and must eat less than 2,000 calories. For some it might be 1,800 or 1,500, so these percentages are meaningless to them. Instead, pay attention to your calorie needs," says McManus. Your daily calorie needs depend on your age, gender, weight, height, and physical activity.