That small bag of dark chocolate-covered almonds seemed like the perfect pick-me-up for the mid-afternoon slump. After all, dark chocolate and almonds are supposed to be relatively good for you right? So you devour the bag, relishing in the savory mix of sweet and salty, and marveling at how this new nut nirvana can only be 170 calories.
Then you read the nutrition label a bit closer and realize that the bag actually contains three servings and that an actual serving size would leave a mouse hungry. So now, the 170 calories you consumed, just became 510.
Nutritional labels can provide valuable information to help consumers lead a healthier life – but they first need to understand what is on the label. According to Joseph Allen, MD, at Family Medicine of Vandalia, a Premier HealthNet practice, many individuals disregard nutrition labels and of those who take the time to glance at the food’s facts, only a small percentage really understand them.
“Probably one of the biggest mistakes folks make is that they look at the nutrition label thinking it tells them the numbers for everything that is in that container,” Dr. Allen said. “And it most certainly doesn’t. Let’s take a 20-ounce bottle of pop. Someone may look at it and say, ‘Oh it only has 100 calories.’ But the bottle is actually two serving sizes, not one.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that good nutrition can help individuals manage several diseases such as osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and even certain types of cancers. Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the most common diseases Dr. Allen treats in his office that can be directly impacted by food consumption.
“For hypertension (high blood pressure), you want to look at sodium content. High salt intake increases blood pressure in a high percentage of our population,” he said. “And with diabetes, there are a lot of things that come into play. The carbohydrate content is a big one that people don’t think about. People with diabetes may think they just can’t eat sugar, but its also starchy foods that are high in carbohydrates.”
A study released in May by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said that sodium levels in packaged and restaurant food have not really decreased over the last few years, despite industry efforts to reduce salt content. So understanding nutrition labels is extremely important, especially for those needing to reduce their sodium intake.
Calorie and nutrient amounts vary greatly for individuals depending on their personal health situation and activity level. Dr. Allen advises people to meet with their primary care physicians to get a better understanding of nutrition labels and to ensure that they have a clear understanding of their nutritional needs.
5 THINGS TO FOCUS ON WHEN READING NUTRITION LABELS
The FDA recommends focusing on the following five key areas of a nutrition label:
• Serving size – This tells how many servings are in a package and is the first place to start when reading a nutrition label. Serving sizes are given in familiar measurements such as cups or pieces but may not be the same as a typical person eats at one sitting. It is important to remember that all nutrition information on a label is based on the defined serving size, so be aware of how many servings are in the package.
• Calories – The calories listed are for one serving size. Remember that a product that’s fat-free isn’t necessarily calorie-free and the number of serving you eat determines the number of calories you are consuming.
• Percent daily value – This indicates how the nutrients in one serving of the food contribute to a recommended 2,000 calorie diet. Individuals should use this percentage to choose foods that are high in the nutrients they need and low in the nutrients they should reduce. It’s important to remember that daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
• Limit certain nutrients – Eating too much total fat, cholesterol or sodium may increase the risk of certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers and high blood pressure.
• Know what nutrients are important – Generally, Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and potassium in their diets.