Anything you buy at the grocery store that comes in a package also comes with a label. Consider this label your official warning of what you are about to consume. If you’ve never read labels before, FitClub has a cheat sheet for what you need to look for and what you should avoid.
- The serving size. Arguably, the serving size on packaged food is the most important part of the label. A bag of potato chips or a small pint of ice cream might seem like a single serving when you’re looking for a late night snack, but the serving size is generally much smaller than anticipated. If the label says 100 calories and you’re thinking of adding it to your snack selection at home, check the serving size first. A pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for example is 270 calories per serving, but the serving size is only 1/2 cup.
- The ingredient list. You may assume that if it’s sold in the grocery store it’s actual food, but if it comes in a package it’s more likely a combination of chemicals. A single can of Diet Coke, for example, contains caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, citric acid, and caffeine. Even foods that are advertised as healthy foods or snacks contain lists of chemicals with names that are impossible to pronounce. The best way to avoid chemicals is to avoid picking up anything that comes in a package. Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is an easy rule of thumb to help you choose more foods and fewer chemicals.
- Macro content. Even if something has zero calories or is sold as “low fat” or “high protein” doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. A balanced diet contains a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. A quick look at the label on packaged food can tell you if your options are a healthy balance of each or high carbohydrate and low value foods.
- The percentages are estimates. Most labels also have percentages of the macro nutrients, sodium, and sugar. These percentages, though, are based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. For many of us trying to lose weight or live healthier lifestyles, 2,000 calories might be far too many calories and not an accurate representation of the percentages we need to hit our goals. Instead of relying on the percentages, use a calorie-tracking app on your phone, or a notebook and a pen to do the math yourself and figure out what percentages are right for you. Especially with regard to sodium and sugar, what’s “typical” or “average” might not be what’s in your best interest.
Do you read labels? Taking a few extra minutes on your next trip to the grocery store might save you from accidentally sabotaging your own healthy lifestyle goals!