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In-depth: Reading Food Labels

separator Advice about healthy food often comes with a mention of the importance of reading food labels. What do you need to know to make the food labels relevant to your needs?

First, Know Your Own Requirements

For the food labels to make sense to you, you need to know what your own dietary requirements are. How many calories should you have each day? How many milligrams of sodium? How much total fat and saturated fat? The labels assume the following:
  • A day's worth of food should add up to 2,000 calories
  • A day's calories should comprise no more than 30 percent of fat
  • Saturated fat should comprise no more than 10 percent of calories
  • Sodium (salt) should be limited to 3,500 milligrams per day
If these numbers are about right for you, the labels will match your requirements. But if you should have less fat, less salt or maybe fewer calories, you'll need to make that mental adjustment when you're reading the labels. If you have heart disease already, there's a good chance that you'll have different requirements than the ones on the label. The label serves as a guideline, but it isn't exactly right for every single person.

Let's say your healthcare team has said that fat should make up only 20 percent of your daily food intake, instead of 30. Then you'll know you should have 10 percent less than what's recommended on the label.

Things to Watch Out For
You need to read food labels carefully to make sure you really know what you're getting. It can be easy to read the labels and think you're doing the right thing for your body, when closer inspection and a little more knowledge would let you know you're getting more than you bargained for. Some examples:

Serving Size: You really need to pay attention to this. For most people, the "serving size" on the label is a lot smaller than what they would normally eat. Snack foods are especially deceptive. If you buy a bad of chips, you might easily eat half of it in one sitting, but the label may tell you it contains 10 or 12 servings.

"Cholesterol Free" indications: There's nothing false about this, but a food can be low in cholesterol and still be high in fat. It's the fat, especially saturated fat, that can cause high cholesterol levels in your blood. In other words, cholesterol free labeling doesn't necessarily mean a food is good for your heart.

Total Fat listing: Here is another listing that can be confusing. You need to look not just at the total fat grams listed, but at the saturated fat listing that's right underneath. Even if the total fat seems like it's meeting your dietary guideline, it isn't if say, the total fat is 5 grams and saturated fat is 4 grams. Saturated fat should equal no more than 10 percent of the total fat.

Hydrogenated fats: These are indicated in the ingredients list on the food packaging. Avoid these fats. They help increase the shelf life of foods, but they are not helping increase your shelf life at all. Hydrogenated fats (also sometimes listed as "partially hydrogenated fats" convert into cholesterol.

About ingredients lists in general: A good rule of thumb for making sense of the ingredients list is to ask yourself if you know what most of the words mean. The more words there are that don't sound like actual food, the better the chances that you're looking at a highly processed food item. You want to stick with food that's close to its natural state. It shouldn't have a lot of preservatives and other chemicals added.

Remember, to make sense of the food labels, you need to know your own requirements. Find out from your doctor, a nutritionist, dietitian or other healthcare professional exactly what your needs are-calories, salt, cholesterol, fat. Once you have this information down, you're ready to make smart choices about your food.

The American Heart Association; American Journal of Nutrition, December 2001. M. Mogadam. Every Heart Attack is Preventable. Lifeline Press, Washington, D.C 20001, 2001. Source: A. Weil. Eating Well for Optimum Health. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 10022, 2000.
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