Decoding Nutrition Labels

Use this guide to make better choices the next time you're in the grocery store.
Allison Barnes

We all want to eat smart, but figuring out nutrition facts can be downright confusing. All the terminology and numbers seem like some secret language known only by doctors and dieticians. Yet understanding this information can help you make wise decisions. We'll help you crack the code to reading labels.

1. Calories
Units used to measure food energy. Calories convert to stored fat if not burned off.

2. Total Fat
Has 9 calories per gram. Limit to 30% or fewer of the total calories you consume in a day (2,400 calories = 80 grams or fewer). There are exceptions for good fats, such as those in fish.

3. Saturated Fat
Found in foods, such as butter, heavy cream, and whole milk, that are made from animals. Eat fewer than 20 grams a day.

4. Cholesterol
A waxy fat found primarily in animal products. Also found naturally in the blood. The body can't dissolve cholesterol, so too much of the LDL or "bad" kind can increase your risk of heart disease. HDL, or "good" cholesterol, seems to protect against heart attacks.

5. Sodium
Naturally occurring mineral found in salt. Control intake to 2,300 milligrams or less (depending upon your body's needs) or 1 teaspoon a day.

6. Total Carbohydrates
Refined sugars and starches or "body fuel."

7. Dietary Fiber
Plant nutrients found in good carbohydrates such as grains, oats, bran, whole wheat, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber plays an important role in reducing cholesterol. Aim for 25 grams each day.

8. Protein
Organic compounds made of amino acids, which have four calories per gram. We need about 0.8 gram of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight. For example, a 130-pound woman needs about 47 grams of protein a day, which can be found in a 6-ounce piece of salmon.

9. Daily Value
Government standards for how much of a substance you should eat each day. Quick reference: 5% or less of nutrient is low, while 20% or more is high.

"Decoding Labels" is from the October 2007 issue of Southern Living.

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