How to Understand Food Labelling

Updated: Feb 13

Reduce the confusion while shopping by knowing 3 things to look for.

Grocery shopping and label reading, while you are trying to change eating habits and get healthy, can be confusing and frustrating. So many numbers, percentages and nutrients to understand on a label. You may ask yourself, "Is this good for me or not?" Trying to understand food labels takes a bit of coaching and practice.

There are 3 main things to learn about when shopping and looking at food labels. 1. Macronutrients, 2. Serving Size, 3. Ingredients

It doesn't have to be complex, and you don't have to be a nutritionist to understand the most important things about food and what the labels tell you when you shop.


Now I will tell you right up front I am not a fan of calorie counting. You need calories to survive. Calories are what the body uses for energy. But more importantly, it is the type of calorie that you consume that helps determine true healthy eating. Knowing a bit about the labels you are looking at will help you with what type of food you are actually consuming. There are three types of macronutrients, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and your body needs all three. Generally speaking, where you get these calories from is more important than the number you consume. When looking at a label, first determine which macronutrient is highest in proportion to the others. This will help you determine whether you are eating a fat, a protein or a carbohydrate-based food.

Proteins break down to amino acids and are necessary for building muscle and body tissues, metabolic reactions and proper pH and fluid balance. They not only keep your muscles strong, but they support a healthy immune system and transport nutrients throughout your body. And, if you aren't building muscles and tissues, you are likely losing muscles and tissues will have a hard time repairing. A good starting point is making sure you take in about half your body weight in grams of protein. Divide this number by three meals a day and you can easily determine how much protein you need per meal. Knowing how much you should intake is a good first step to getting the right amounts daily. When looking at food labels look to see how much protein the product contains. Notice there isn't a percent daily value associated with protein. This is because people need different amounts.

Fats are also very important for the body. So don't let all the articles and commentary scare you. YOU NEED FATS. Fat is a fuel source and the major storage form of energy in your body. Fats protect your organs, support cell growth and help in blood pressure regulation. Your brain needs fat to maintain healthy neurons which transmit information and messages. But again, the types of fats you eat are extremely important to the overall picture of your health. First, know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are found in animal products, dairy and many baked good and processed foods. Unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) are healthier fats. They show up in nuts, seeds, avocados, fish and healthy oils like olive oil. Just be sure you are eating a healthy fat a day to start. When reading labels about fats be sure to notice the different types of fats and consume foods with more unsaturated fat and get rid of the saturated in your diet.

Carbohydrates, also known as "sugars," are the third type of macronutrient. Carbohydrates are all broken down to glucose to be utilized by the cells for energy. Once in the cell it is used to produce a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in cellular respiration. These molecules then power metabolic steps. Carbs can also be stored for later use in the muscles and liver. When you have too much glucose and your stores are abundant, your body may convert excess carbs into triglycerides (fat). You do need carbs and sugar for daily activities and to sustain muscle and strength. The key is obviously not to get too many in your diet that you start to convert excess carbohydrate to fats. Fiber is another type of carbohydrate that you need. Fiber promotes healthy digestion and digestive tract by passing thru your intestines bulking stool and lowering risk of digestive diseases. How much you should intake daily depends on you as an individual, your activity level, your health status and the percentage of sugars to fibers in the food. Higher fiber foods have a healthier effect on you than sugars. When reading labels look at the overall content and how it is broken down into sugars versus fiber. Stay away from foods with added sugar as this is typically processed white sugar that is bad for you. Stick to gluten free whole grains high in fiber.

Serving Size

At the top of all nutrition labels, you will find servings per container and serving size information. Servings per container tells you how many servings, based on serving size, are in the product package. Serving size is product specific and determined by the manufacturer. This serving size is how all of the subsequent nutritional value is determined for the product on the label. Take note what the serving size is and do a quick gut check about what serving size you usually consume and take that into consideration when reviewing the product. If the serving size for a cereal is 1 cup, but you definitely eat 2 or three cups per sitting, be sure you do the math! Be smarter than the label. Manufacturers will typically choose a smaller serving size so that the percent values do not look as bad to the consumer. Also be aware the percent daily value amounts are based on the minimum nutrients needed from a very outdated study that intended to put a number/requirement to nutrients consumers should consume.


It's important to understand a very basic piece of information when reviewing the list of ingredients for any food product. Less is more! Meaning less is best. If staying healthy is important to you, be sure to eat more whole food ingredients, also known as "one" ingredient foods. Organic chicken contains organic chicken. A bell pepper contains bell pepper. Whole foods are always a better choice than processed foods. Processed foods contains preservatives, chemicals and are typically nutrient deficient. Stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store, eat organic and cook at home. These simple habits are so important to staying healthy. When looking at a food label the same goes. The shorter the list, the likely better the food is for you. A cereal that has 22 ingredients is not good for you. Next, understand that if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be eating it. Manufacturers will add all sorts of things to your food in the process. Take a look at a list and ask yourself if you really want to put something you can't pronounce in your body. It does have profound effects on you over time. And don't be fooled by things like spices, or natural flavors. These are chemicals incognito. The FDA allows companies to list certain things in these categories.

All in all, understanding labels doesn't have to be hard. Remember to first determine the ratio of macronutrients to understand the type of food you are eating, understand the serving size to see how much you are eating, and look at the ingredients to determine if you should be eating it. Sticking to whole foods, full of fiber, healthy fats, high in protein will generally keep you out of trouble. Now go enjoy reading those labels and teach a friend how to do it too! Happy eating!

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