Reading that fast-food burgers and fries aren’t particularly good for you is hardly news. By the time you are an adult, you know that eating well is an important part of how you look and feel. But what is gaining credence is that what you eat can help you accomplish certain goals — from short-term goals, like a good night’s sleep, to long-range goals, like keeping your memory sharp. Your nutritional choices can improve your health and well-being. So check out our ultimate guide on how to decode those nutrition labels — then adopt these 30 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism After 30!
What’s in a label?
Understanding the words on the back of a can or box is key to managing your nutritional needs.
The Nutrition Facts label started appearing on every item of packaged food in the U.S. in 1990. At first, the law required a listing of calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sodium. In 1993, saturated fats and cholesterol were added, followed in 2006 by trans fats, the dangerous mutant gunk that’s formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats so they’ll stay stable on grocery-store shelves.
While the labeling law was meant to be helpful, many people still don’t understand how to put the information into practice. Consider these your Cliffs Notes for your next supermarket test.
Serving Size and Servings per Container
• What it tells you. How much food you’re consuming
• Don’t be fooled. For something that seems so simple, this part of the label can be tricky. What you consider to be one sen/ing may be two or more. This is especially common with bottled beverages, such as iced tea, colas, and sports drinks. So that “100 calories” you glanced at on the label became 250 when you gulped down the whole bottle.
• Use it. Serving size is listed at the top of the label for a reason. So read it first, before eating or drinking it all. Make sure you understand what a serving is.
(Of course, whole foods are always best — stock your kitchen with these 20 Amazing Healing Foods!
• What it tells you. The measure of energy a food provides
• Don’t be fooled. By itself, this number means little. Calorie requirements are like DVR settings—everyone’s are different. Yours depends on your size and lifestyle. But some universal rules do apply. Too many calories and the surplus gets stored as fat. Too few and you lose weight. Or starve.
• Use it. To figure out your calorie needs, use this formula.
A. Your weight in pounds:
B. Basic calorie needs. Multiply line A by 11: x 11 =
C. Physical activity. Multiply line B by 20% if you currently get no exercise, 30% for light exercise (2 hours a day on your feet), 40% for moderate exercise every day, or 50% for intense exercise 3 or 4 days a week: x % =.
D. Your daily calorie needs. Add lines B and C: + =
Calories from Fat
• What it tells you. The number of stories that come from the food’s total fat count
• Don’t be fooled. This number can vary greatly. But if you multiply it by three and get a number nearly as big as the total calories, proceed with caution. You’ll have more reading to do.
• Use it. Hate math? Ignore Calories from Fat, and look at Total Fat instead.
And non your next shopping trip, fill your cart with these 25 Foods That’ll Keep You Young Forever!
% Daily Value
• What it tells you. The percentage of daily intake the food supplies, based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet
• Don’t be fooled. You probably need more than 2,000 calories, unless you’re an average-size man trying to lose weight.
• Ignore it.
• What it tells you. The combined total of saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats—the stuff that makes food taste good
• Don’t be fooled. Something with a lot of grams of fat isn’t always bad. Some fats are good for you.
• Use it. Look below Total Fat at the number for Saturated Fat. You want to see a ratio that’s at least three to one, total to saturated. More specifically, look for 3 g of total fat and 1 g of saturated fat per 100 calories. So if a frozen dinner has 400 calories and 12 g of total fat, that’s 3 g per 100 calories.
• But look further. If Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats are listed below Saturated Fat, the food is probably healthy. Avoid trans fats whenever possible. To find out which foods contain heart-healthy good fats, check out these 25 Foods Men Over 45 Should Eat!
• What it is. A fatlike substance in foods from animals
• Don’t be fooled. It’s not that important. Your body manufactures most of the cholesterol in your system; what food adds is small.
• Use it. Don’t sweat it, but shoot for 300 mg or less per day.
• What it is. A mineral (salt, basically) usually added for flavor and to help preserve foods
• Don’t be fooled. Those big numbers jump out at you—but don’t panic.
• Use it. Unless you have high blood pressure or are sodium sensitive, use 2,000 mg as a reasonable target for total daily sodium intake. So a frozen dinner with 1,300 mg should go back in the store’s freezer. Lowering your sodium intake is just one of of the 10 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure All Day Long!
• What it tells you. All of the sugar, starch, and fiber in a food
• Don’t be fooled. The total number isn’t very important. It’s what kinds of carbohydrates are inside. Not all carbs are bad: Check out these 10 Best Carbs for Your Abs.
• Ignore it. And keep on reading.
• What it is. The roughage that serves as a pipe cleaner for your digestive and circulatory systems
• Don’t be fooled. Fiber comes in two types—soluble and insoluble—and each is crucial to your diet. Because insoluble fiber is digested but not absorbed, it helps you feel full. As it moves along, it keeps the other stuff you’ve eaten moving along, too. (This property can have a beneficial effect on your waistline. A USDA study found that people who eat 36 g of fiber each day essentially lose an extra 130 calories.) And, of the two types, insoluble fiber is much easier to find; just look on the ingredient list for the words “whole grain.” You’ll also find insoluble fiber in nuts, seeds, and beans.
Soluble fiber moves from the digestive system to the circulatory system, keeping blood vessels lubed so cholesterol won’t stick. Top sources include oranges, apples, and oats.
• Use it. Any food with 2 g of fiber—of any kind—per serving is good; 5 g or more is great. Generally, the higher the fiber count, the healthier the food.
• What it is. The sweet stuff that you eat 150-plus pounds of per year
• Don’t be fooled. Not all sugars are bad. Some are inherent in the foods you eat, like the following: fructose (fruit sugar), glucose (dextrose), gatactose (milk sugar), lactose (another milk sugar that blends glucose and galactose), and maltose (malt sugar). You won’t find a “sugar-free” milk. These sugars aren’t the ones to worry about.
• With snack foods or cereals, it’s the added sugars that get you into trouble. Sucrose (table sugar) and cane juice inflate the calorie count. High-fructose corn syrup does, too. It’s also metabolized into fat faster than other sweeteners and can throw off your body’s weight-regulating hormones. Glance at the Ingredients, then
back at the Sugars.
• Use it. Aim for 5 g or less of sugar per serving.
Having trouble kicking the habit? Try these 7 Easy Ways to Sneak Away From Sugar!
• What it is. What’s in the food, in order by weight from most to least
• Don’t be fooled. Not every food is as it seems. For example, processed peanut butter contains peanuts, along with extra sugars and molasses for sweeter flavor, partially hydrogenated oils to keep the blend of fats shelf-stable, and mono- and diglycerides, emulsifying fat molecules that help give foods a creamy texture. Natural peanut butter is made with two ingredients: roasted peanuts and salt. No surprises there.
• Use it. Criminals such as high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils should occupy fifth place or lower.
Vitamin and mineral percentages
• What it tells you. The food’s percentage of the minimum amounts of nutrients required to prevent various deficiency diseases
• Don’t be fooled. All labels must list four basic nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Others must be listed if they’re added as supplements (which is why you see so many on nutrient-fortified breakfast cereals). But remember, these numbers are based on minimum intakes—the least amount of vitamin C you can consume to avoid coming down with scurvy, for instance. Don’t get us wrong—foods with higher Daily Value percentages of nutrients are usually smart choices. But taking a multivitamin with breakfast is the best approach to meeting your vitamin and mineral needs. Do that and you can…
• Ignore it.
• What it is. The amino acids that build and maintain your entire body
• Don’t be fooled. Ever meet an American with a protein deficiency? Neither did we. The only thing you realty need to know about protein is that it helps keep you feeling satisfied. Gym rats should top out at 162 to 225 g per day. Thinner guys need no more than 114 g.
• Use it. When choosing foods, especially snack foods you’ll be tempted to overeat, make sure they contain some protein. For more tips on how smart snacking can improve your health, check out our exclusive guide to 52 Super-Fast Health Boosters!