THE BLOG
03/31/2016 05:56 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

Learning to Love Your Label

Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images

We live in a world overflowing with information. From your morning newspapers and afternoon email blasts, to your "evening" 24-hour news cycle, everyone seems to be stuffing your brain with more and more detailed information. In addition to knowing all the Kardashians in order of Instagram followers, what's going on in politics and how to catch catfish with just your bare hands, we are also told we must know how to read food labels.

Many of my patients find this challenging. From the tiny font to the structure of the label, it can be a handful if you don't know where to start.

First and foremost, the "The Nutrition Facts Panel" label is located on every packaged food item in America. That's right-- these little suckers are living rent-free in your home right now and you may not even have known. These labels contain percentages, serving sizes, weights and vitamins-- but only of a select few, and since everyone says they're important, we should know what we're looking at.

Below is my quick and dirty guide on how to read a food label so you, too, can learn to love your label:

Serving size. This is by far the most important item to look at because all the data below is based on this specific amount of food. There are some federal guidelines, but a few food companies have very small portions listed as the serving size, much smaller than you would normally eat in a setting, so be aware. For instance, I don't know about you but the last time I at a single package of Ramen noodles, I didn't think it was a dinner for two; but if you look at the nutrition facts panel, it shows, clear as day, 2 servings per package. Therefore, if you eat the entire package you have to double all of the numbers that follow, such as calories, fat, sodium, and vitamins. Get it? Got it? Good!

Calories. Ok, now everyone loves to look at this and make a snap decision, but calories get a bad rap. First, what the heck is a calorie? Well, they're a measurement of energy. That means these crackers, soup, tuna, or whatever you're eating contains energy and when you consume that you get that energy--too much energy or too little energy and you may have problems. So, how many calories should you have anyway? This one is pretty easy to remember... what year is it? If you know the year you know about the amount of calories you should eat and, not to sound morbid, but it will be correct until you die. The classic 2000 calories is based on what an average woman would need to maintain her 132 pounds and is easier to work with than 1834 or some other strange number. There are recommendations for more if you're a 17-year-old boy, or less if you're a 65-year old woman, but since the food facts panel is not exact, we're not concerned with being a little bit off.

Fat. Remember in the '90s when fat was the enemy and now we're smearing coconut oil or EVOO on everything we eat? Fat is not the best in large quantities, especially trans-fat, which I'll talk about in a moment. But fat has a lot more calories than an equivalent amount of carbohydrates and protein, so eating an entire stick of butter with a deep fried waffle--a la Homer Simpson--is still not a great idea. For fat, we just want to limit it. Unlike the vitamins that appear later, hitting 100% is not the goal. Now on to trans-fat-- this is a fat that can occur naturally but is usually created by adding hydrogen to cheap vegetable oils, creating a product that can last longer than a twinkle. Some states have outlawed them, but when you see 0g trans-fat, that just means there is less than 0.5g per serving--that's why the serving sizes can be so funky. New research and guidelines are starting to show there is less importance in watching your saturated fat intake but, just like total fat, it should be limited.

FDA Food Label

Carbohydrates. Carbs, you say? I don't eat them because I'm gluten free! That's nice, but too because bad gluten is also a protein. Carbohydrates are essential for life; your body will destroy itself to create substances that resemble carbohydrates. Simply put, it is the most efficient fuel we have. If we look at just total carbohydrates, it doesn't tell us a lot; you have to look at the lines below where the carbs are broken down into categories to get an idea of the quality of what you're eating. What scares most of my patients is sugar-- they're diabetic and know that too much sugar is bad for them, which is true, but those of us who do not have issues with sugar need to understand that all sugar was not created equally. Some sugar occurs naturally and some is added. If you're eating a piece of fruit and want to know what's in it, you'll see a bunch of sugar--naturally occurring. Now, when you look at the nutrition facts panel of your bread you may be surprised by how much sugar is put in--added in during the mixing/baking process. They're both sugar, but one is expected and the other is not. That unexpected sugar can be a problem. Finally, you may see fiber listed under carbohydrates. You don't really digest fiber, so it's not going to count against you, as far as calories go, but it does help to keep your food moving (if you know what I mean). Fiber has a percentage listed and you should strive for 100% throughout the course of a day, but if you're far from it now, don't get to it too quickly or you may be spending more time in the bathroom than you would like. Shoot for 25-30 grams per day, which is a lot, but has shown to do so many wonderful things for your body, it's worth the work. If you want to get deep into fiber, check out my previous Huffington Post article on the topic.

Protein. Protein is kind of the leftover of the three macro-nutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein) but it plays one of the biggest roles in keeping you together, literally. Protein, which we usually know as meat and legumes, is broken down to create everything from muscles and enzymes to blood and organs. It can even play roles in how your DNA functions and which genes get more or less expressed. Protein is crazy powerful! But there is no percentage-- the USDA recommends 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight, but when I'm shopping and have 3.2 seconds to decide if I want to buy something it's difficult to calculate (not to mention 0.37 grams is such a bizarre number that, unless I'm a big time drug dealer, I have no frame of reference for). So a good rule of thumb is the protein for a meal should be about 1/3 or more of the carbohydrates.

Vitamins. I try to tell my patients not so sweat the vitamins section. If you're eating some whole foods in your diet, you're not going to be missing a lot of those vitamins--especially if you're eating a deliciously diverse menu. But, like the fiber, you should try to get 100% of those values throughout the course of the day and for most it's OK if you go a bit over (your body will just flush out what it doesn't need).

Now there is a caveat to this: if you've got something going on (eg. recovering from surgery, pregnant, lactating, have HIV/AIDS, have had an organ transplant, have metabolic syndrome, etc.) the guidelines on the back of the food package are not necessarily for you. The nutrition fact panel are an estimate of what is required for most of the people who are healthy. See those big three qualifiers? ESTIMATE, MOST, HEALTHY. A problem many of us face is that by the time we're looking at the nutrition facts panel, we've got something going on and need to speak with an expert to modify these guidelines for us specifically.

Ingredient list. High-fructose corn syrup? Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil? Monosodium glutamate? Butylated hydroxytoluene? This is where you find out what your food is made of. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. We've gotten good at locating things like "whole wheat" and "high-fructose corn syrup" but companies are getting wise and adding multiple types of sugar so, individually, they move further down the label and we don't notice. Keep an eye on what's happening here if you want to get really in touch with your food.

If you made it this far in the article, you're ready to hit the grocery store, but my advice would be to avoid too many foods labels and shop on the outside of the store. If you're eating lean proteins from the meat counter, and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables along with whole grains, then you're not going to have to worry about much of the above. That being said, processed foods are not the enemy and having an idea of what you're looking at on the food facts panel can help make you a better shopper and healthier person.

Be Fearless, Be Full.