There are few things in life more important to good health and overall human flourishing than eating a good diet. Of course, one of the essential parts of good nutrition is knowing what you are eating. Modern circumstances mean that humans today have a vast array of unhealthy foods easily available. This means that knowing which foods are the best ones to eat is vital.
Perhaps the most basic tool in assessing the nutritional value of a food item is the nutrition label. Affixed to nearly every can, plastic container, and other food packaging sold in the U.S., the nutrition label is a familiar sight to all. But how to gain valuable information from the label is another matter entirely. There, most people are clueless.
If you are one of those folks, don't despair. Here are four big things to check out when looking at a nutrition label.
The Ingredient List
The ingredient list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of what is actually in the food. But there's an important aspect of the ingredient list that few people know about -- the ingredients are listed in descending order of their weight. This means, simply enough, that the ingredients listed first are the most important ones. A quick look at the first few ingredients will give you a clearer picture of what's really in the product. Frequently, how a product is advertised does not match with its actual contents.
Ingredient lists can be baffling, as there is often a long list of indecipherable ingredients present. However, that itself provides valuable information. Processed food is not good for you. Generally, the more strange, impossible-to-identify ingredients with weird chemical names there are, the worse the food. Foods that have short, simple ingredient lists are generally better. Then you can have a real sense of what you are putting in your body.
Calories and Serving Size
Calorie intake is what determines whether a person gains or loses weight. A caloric surplus means adding weight, while a deficit results in weight loss. While calorie counting is certainly not a must for most people, it can be important for anyone trying to shed pounds to reach a healthier size. Occasionally looking at calorie count -- just to get an idea of how many calories you are consuming -- is worth doing.
However, checking the calories listed on a nutrition label must go hand in hand with checking the serving size. Unfortunately, servings sizes are often distinctly non-intuitive. A small calorie total doesn't mean what it seems to if the serving size is tiny as well. Many unhealthy, high-calorie foods have serving sizes much smaller than the typical person would eat in a single sitting.
Tastes differ, but many people's favorite things to eat are sweet, sugary foods. That's too bad because sugar is absolutely awful for health. Sugar has no nutritional value and is high in calories. It's metabolized quickly, which causes spikes in blood sugar levels, resulting in ensuing sugar crashes. Over the long term, such spikes can ultimately result in the development of diabetes. Sugar is terrible for dental health, too.
Besides overall sugar, it's also useful to look at the added sugar total listed on a nutrition label. Avoiding added sugar as much as possible is a smart approach. If you limit yourself to foods containing only naturally occurring sugar, you are unlikely to have an enormous sugar intake. It's really the added sugar that makes today's diet habits so damaging. Sugar intake has risen stratospherically in modern times.
Just checking how much fat is contained in a product isn't all that useful. The idea that fat is simply bad for you has now been exposed as a myth. Fat is, in truth, a crucial part of a healthy diet. Fat is filling and satisfying, so foods with lots of fat can actually prevent overeating. What you want is to consume plenty of good, healthy fats but minimum amounts of bad fats.
Fortunately, nutrition labels provide details about the specific kinds of fat found in a food item. Saturated fats and trans fats are the nasty kinds of fat that should be avoided. Overall fat content, saturated fat totals, and trans fat totals are all displayed on a nutrition label. One smart strategy is to eyeball the ratio of total fat to saturated and trans fats. Lots of fat can be just fine -- unless most of the fat is saturated and trans fats.
Education should be a lifelong quest. Sadly, nutrition is an area where most people are deficient, as reflected in the terrible state of health of the average person today. The nutrition label can be an invaluable tool in trying to consume a better diet. Make sure to learn what to look for when inspecting a nutrition label.