The 8 Most Important Things to Look For on Nutrition Labels

If you want to fill your grocery cart with foods that’ll keep you satisfied, slim and overall healthy, your smartest strategy is to first look at the ingredients list (or, even better, buy whole foods that don’t have an ingredients list). Words you can’t pronounce? Lots of sneaky names for sugar? Put it back on the shelf.

Your next move: Read the nutrition label. Studies show that label readers make healthier choices at the grocery store and maintain healthier weights, too. But what should you be looking for, exactly?

In her book “Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food,” celebrity nutritionist Christine Avanti offers these general guidelines for reading a nutrition label right:

•  Serving size: This tells you what amount of the food or drink the nutritional information is based on. Some nutrition panels will also tell you how many servings are in the package or container. Look carefully at the serving size. There may be two, three or more servings in the package, which obviously doubles or triples the number of calories and the amounts of the ingredients in the food if you eat the whole thing.

•  Calories: As a general rule, you should stick to 300 to 500 calories in one meal if you intend to lose weight. That being said, in my opinion the number of calories in a serving of food is not as critical as the amount of protein, carbs, fats and real-food ingredients. I recommend eating foods that stabilize blood sugar levels, so the focus should not be so much on calories as on how you are balancing your carbs with your protein and fats. If the food has 70 grams of carbs but just 4 grams of protein, that food will definitely spike blood sugar, so I recommend you avoid it.

•  Total fat: Total fat tells you how much fat is in a serving. Some labels, like the one shown, do break out saturated and trans fat and give the amounts of each. But just as many do not. The reason is the food industry does not want to call attention to the fact that their products contain trans fat. Therefore, many labels will simply list the total amount of fat and then break out and list the total amount of saturated fat, leaving it up to you to do your detective work on the ingredients list to figure out what other kinds of fat the product contains. Avoid foods with more than 15 grams of fat per serving if you would like to lose weight (unless you are sure it is a “good” fat).

•  Cholesterol: Too much cholesterol means the food is high in fat. Remember, you want to keep your fat intake to a ballpark of 40 grams a day (10 grams per meal) for weight loss.

•  Sodium: You really need to be diligent in reducing your sodium intake. By the USDA’s reckoning, a food is low in sodium if it contains no more than 140 milligrams per serving. As a rule, the amount of sodium should be less than double the number of calories per serving.

•  Total carbohydrates: This category includes everything from whole grains to sugar and other refined carbs. Typically, a nutrition panel will break down the carbohydrate total, detailing how much fiber and sugar is included in the total number.

•  Sugar, Sugar, SUGAR!: This number is super important. In fact, this is one of the major bits of information that I hope will make an imprint on your brain and never go away. When it comes to the sugar count on a nutrition label, the most important information you need to know is that 4 grams of nutrition label sugar equals 1 actual teaspoon of sugar. You don’t have to go crazy counting grams of sugar, but if your goal is to lose weight, aim for no more than 5 teaspoons, or 20 grams, of added sugars per day. Remember that natural sugars are OK to consume in moderation (along with a protein or healthy-fat source, in order to stabilize blood sugar). The villain is too many added sugars, which can be found in even seemingly healthy foods like yogurts.

•  Protein: On a real-food diet, between 20 percent and 25 percent of your total calories should come from protein. That comes out to about 20 to 22 grams of protein per meal. Remember, it is important to also look at how many grams of carbs and fat your food has. Generally you want your meal to be approximately one part protein to two parts carbohydrates and under 15 grams of good fats.