How to Read a Food Label

Forget all the fancy claims on the front of the package - "Lite," "Low Sodium," "Reduced Fat" -- they tell you nothing. What you need is a direct means of comparison between products, and this is found in a little box on the bottom or back simply labeled "Nutrition Facts." Highly simplified from the labeling used years ago, this box presents key dietary information exclusively.

First on the label is the serving size. People tend to overlook this and go straight to the calories section -- big mistake. Calories are calculated based on the serving size. If you're planning to eat a 240-calorie frozen fish filet for dinner, that isn't an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, it's exactly one filet - the serving size. If you want more, you'll have to multiply the calories (and everything else) accordingly.

Calories come next, listed as total calories and fat calories. In general, healthy foods will have less than half their calories coming from fat. Do a quick check -- if most the calories come from fats, think twice about whether your hips really need that product.

Fats are broken down categorically. Check for a big zero on trans fat -- any consumer-conscious product has eliminated the use of trans fats by now. After that, compare the saturated fat to the total fat. The lower the saturated fat, the better is the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats. You need both, but in general, you want a higher proportion of unsaturated fats in your diet.

Cholesterol and sodium are straightforward -- the lower they are, the better for you. High amounts of sodium and cholesterol lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Carbohydrates are then broken down, much like the fats. Look for plenty of fiber -- it's a beneficial part of your diet. Unfortunately, the sugar isn't categorized, so try to avoid high-sugar foods and drinks. Sugars can include high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, or any other sugar, so you'll have to check the ingredients list. That's a good thing to get in the habit of doing anyway. You do want to know what you're eating, right?

Protein is the last major item, and foods that are rich in protein are great nutrition for your body, supplying both energy and the amino acids your body requires to function. Foods that have higher protein content than fat are excellent choices.

In all sections, %DV (percent daily values) are given. You can use this to estimate how much of a product you need to meet your dietary requirements for the day by adding together the percents for all the foods you'll eat in a day. Remember to multiply by the number of servings.

With that simple breakdown, it's fairly easy to choose healthier foods and to maintain a set caloric intake for the day. The nutritional facts are a legal requirement and can't mislead you the way that the fancy "diet," and "health food" claims can. Let them be your guide, and ignore the marketing schemes that comprise the main labels. You're in control now.