Reading and Understanding Food Labels

As an over the road truck driver it is probably impossible that you won’t rely on some packaged food to get you through your days. The problem that most people have is the lack of understanding on how to read a food label and what all those numbers mean. Understanding and reading food labels is essential to eating for health. It will help you avoid obvious pitfalls such as excessive sugar or sodium consumption and make you more aware what you are putting in your body and how it makes you feel. Knowledge is power and the more you know and understand the food that you are eating the more you are able to make better choices with your nutrition.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. First and foremost….look at the serving size. This is SO important. All of the numbers on the nutrition facts label apply to what is listed as the serving size. It is important to understand that if you plan to eat multiple servings you need to multiply all the numbers accordingly.
  2. Next, glance at calories. This is the number of calories in one serving. Calories are only part of the equation but it is important to know the amount that a serving contains when you are assessing your overall intakes. Ultimately if you overconsume calories weight gain will occur so it is important to have an idea of how many you are consuming. You can’t rely solely on calories to assess a food. Some very nutritious foods are high in calories. Examples would include almonds and avocados.
  3. Know your fats. The main fat you want to be cautious in consuming is trans fats. Trans fats are known to raise LDL cholesterol (bad) and lower HDL cholesterol (good). Look for foods that that contain zero trans fats. It is important to know that if a product contains less than 1 gram of trans fat it can be listed as containing zero on a food label. If you consume multiple servings of that product those trace amounts will add up. To ensure you aren’t consuming trans fat check the ingredients list for any type of hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils, partially or fully, are the ingredient that indicates that a product contains a type of trans fat, even if in a small quantity. Hydrogenated oils are found in a lot of packed baked goods and are one ingredient that gives the product a long shelf life.
  4. Aim to minimize sodium intake. The maximum recommendation for daily sodium intake is 2300mg and if you have diagnosed high blood pressure or are over the age of 40, it is 1500mg. Excess sodium has been correlated with high blood pressure because it draws in water and can increase blood volume which in turn can increase blood pressure. Also, excessive sodium consumption can contribute to fluid retention which is more common when you sit or stand in one place for long periods of time.
  5. Pay attention to Total Carbohydrates first, then assess they types below. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad wrap in the media, but it’s not quite that simple. Carbohydrates are a form of energy and eating the right kinds in the right quantity will improve health. This is where it can get tricky. Complex carbohydrates (the types of carbs that are found in natural, fibrous foods such as vegetables and fruits) are FAR better for you than simple carbohydrates, predominantly refined sugar. The fiber in complex carbohydrates helps for slower digestion preventing sudden spikes in blood sugar. A perfect example explaining this is eating a piece of fruit as opposed to drinking its juice. The processing to create fruit juice strips the fiber from the fruit. There is no daily recommended amount for sugar. You will notice that the amount is just listed as grams. A gram means nothing to most people but to put it into perspective, 1 gram of sugar listed on a food label equals 5 teaspoons of sugar!! This visual can really open people’s eyes about how much sugar they are actually consuming!! Sugar is just empty calories and carbohydrates and provides no nutrition. Excessive sugar consumption contributes to obesity which in turn contributes to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. To ensure balanced meals and best results begin to compare the amount of total carbohydrate to the amount of protein. Aim to keep these two numbers as close to a 1:1 ratio as possible. One typical serving of carbohydrate = 15 grams (roughly one slice of regular bread).
  6. Stay full with fiber. Aim to consume 25g-35g per day. Fiber in foods prevents blood sugar spikes by slowing the digestion of the food, helps with regularity, and makes you feel full!!
  7. Power up with protein. Protein is the building blocks of the body. It also provides a sense of fullness that helps ward off hunger which helps manage your weight. Proteins are necessary to make enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters that are critical for cognitive function. It’s ideal to get your protein from whole foods including meats and fish, eggs, dairy, and nuts.
  8. Check out the ingredients. Ingredients will give you a good idea of the quality of the food. If an ingredients list is a mile long, has words in it you cannot pronounce, or has items listed that you don’t have at home in your pantry, it is a processed food and likely not the healthiest. You want to limit your consumption of processed foods overall and aim to choose foods with the shortest ingredients list.
  9. Percent daily value. These percentages are located on the right side of the nutrition facts label. This Percent Daily Value is the amount recommended if consuming a 2000 calorie diet.