When it comes to eating healthfully, fresh fruits and vegetables are pretty much a slam dunk. Including packaged foods in a healthful diet is trickier. But it isn't impossible if you learn how to use the Nutrition Facts on the package to judge the quality of the food inside. The vitamin or mineral content is less important as a basis for buying a product unless everything else adds up to a healthy choice.
Here are 5 ways to make food labels work for you:
- Size matters. Serving size is always the first item on the label. All other information is based on that serving size. The servings per container tell you know how many portions are in the whole box, package, or can. Beware: many packages contain more than one serving. Look at your orange juice for example. If the label says 125 calories per 8 ounce serving and your breakfast includes a 16 ounce glass of OJ, then you've taken in 250 calories from the juice alone. (About as many calories as you'd find in many chocolate bars.)
- Look for fat: the good, the bad, and the really bad. Check the saturated fat and trans fat content of the food. For a general healthful diet, keep saturated fat and cholesterol low and avoid trans fats altogether. Look for foods that have 0 grams (g) of trans fat and are lowest in saturated fat and cholesterol. Try to stay away from foods that have the words "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" in the ingredients list. Foods made with healthy unsaturated oils (olive, canola, safflower, etc.) are better bets.
- Is it worth its salt? Compare the sodium content to the calories per serving. To keep your salt intake in check, consider products in which the sodium content is less than or equal to the calories per serving. For a food with 250 calories per serving, ideally the sodium content should be no more than 250 mg. If you need to seriously restrict your salt intake consider the low-sodium, low-salt, or unsalted versions.
- Figure out the fiber. Aim for foods that have 5 g of fiber per serving, or at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate
- Stay away from added sugars: Sugar, no matter what it's called, contains almost no nutrients other than pure carbohydrate. A heavy sugar intake fills you up with empty calories, keeps you from eating healthy foods, and stresses your body's ability to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Steer clear of foods that have sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, corn sugar, fructose, or high-fructose corn syrup among the first three ingredients. Other names for sugar include agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, dextrose, maltose, fruit juice concentrate, and glucose.
For more on creating week-by-week action plans, weight control tips, and recipes, buy the 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating from Harvard Medical School.