March was National Nutrition Month, but anytime is a good time to start making some small changes to eat healthier. One of the easiest changes you can make is reading the food labels of the foods and drinks you are having.
Pay attention to the serving size. Is the serving size enough for your meal or snack, or will you have to eat multiple servings? To help estimate, one cup is about the size of a baseball and 3-4 ounces is about the size of a deck of cards. You may need to use a measuring cup until you can eyeball the serving size. If you eat more than the serving size listed, you will have to multiply the information on the food label by how many servings you eat.
Look at the servings per container. This is especially tricky on foods that we think may be a single serving but may be more, like a can of soup, a 20 oz. drink, or a frozen dinner. If the servings per container are more than one and you eat the entire container, you will have to multiply the information on the food label by how many servings you are eating. Some things we think are a single serving are actually two or more.
Look at the amount of sodium. Sodium recommendations vary from 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg daily depending on age and health concerns. So for example, if your food has 750 mg of sodium, that could be one-third to half of the sodium you need in one day. Divide the amount of sodium by 1,500 or 2,300 to determine the percentage for that day.
Make sure to look at the trans fat and saturated fat. Experts recommend that you keep these numbers as low as possible because they negatively impact heart-health.
Don’t forget fiber. It is recommended that we consume 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal, and 100% whole grain bread/pasta/cereal), fruits, and vegetables are the best sources of fiber so choose more of these foods.
Get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Those are the required vitamins and minerals on a label, but there also may be additional ones listed. The closest those percentages are to 20%, the better. Higher than 20% is even healthier.
Only certain populations should pay attention to cholesterol and carbohydrates. If your physician has told you to limit cholesterol, you should look at that number. Those with diabetes should pay attention to the total carbohydrate number. Others do not need to worry too much about those numbers.
Look in two places for the amount of sugar. You can look both on the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. For a more visual representation, divide the grams of sugar by four to get the amount in teaspoons. Look in the ingredient list for corn syrup, anything with the word “sugar”, or things that end in “ose” as those indicate sugar. The closer to the top of the list or the more of those in an ingredient list, the more sugar that food has.
Page 2 of 2 - Protein needs are based on gender, weight, and activity levels. Generally speaking, about 20 grams or so of protein per meal is appropriate. Use the labels to see how much protein you are getting.
When deciding between two similar foods, compare the nutrition labels. For instance, when deciding between skim milk and 2% milk, compare the nutrients listed, such as total fat, calories, sugar, fiber, protein, and vitamins/minerals.
Food labels provide a wealth of information for consumers, so use them to choose healthy foods at the store. If you have questions or ideas for future articles, please contact Melissa Bess, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with University of Missouri Extension. Call the Camden County Extension Center at 573-346-2644 or email Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of MU Extension Health expert Melissa Bess’ tips and ideas for a healthier life on her blog at www.LakeNewsOnline.com.