What Advice Helps Clients Understand Food Labels Effectively?


    What Advice Helps Clients Understand Food Labels Effectively?

    Deciphering food labels can be a daunting task, so we've gathered insights from nutrition experts to guide you. From understanding serving versus portion sizes to navigating labels with a three-step approach, here are six key pieces of advice from registered dietitians and health coaches to help you read and understand food labels more effectively.

    • Navigate Labels with a Four-Step Approach
    • Understand Serving vs. Portion Sizes
    • Focus on The First Three Ingredients
    • Consider Different Nutrient Values
    • Break Down The Lable Line by Line
    • Focus on Personal Health Goals

    Navigate Labels with a Four-Step Approach

    1. Start with the serving size: Many products contain more than one serving, so be sure to adjust the amounts according to how much you desire to consume. For instance, if the package says the serving size is two per container at 300 calories per serving, eating the entire package means 600 calories were consumed.

    2. Scan the ingredient list: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Choose products with shorter ingredient lists containing recognizable and whole foods rather than a long list of artificial additives and preservatives.

    3. Review the % Daily Value (%DV): The %DV shows how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to your daily diet. Aim for lower amounts of nutrients like saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars, and higher amounts of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

    4. Watch out for hidden sugars and unhealthy fats: Be cautious of terms like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and various names for added sugars. Opt for products with healthier fats like unsaturated fats and avoid trans fats.

    Fannie Dillingham
    Fannie DillinghamHealth Coach, Create Your World

    Understand Serving vs. Portion Sizes

    In my opinion, education on serving sizes versus portion sizes is imperative—and usually overlooked by the average person. Food labels are created based on serving sizes gleaned from typical American intakes of that food, and then numbers are applied for calories and nutrient amounts based on a generic 2,000-calorie diet. Some people need less than 2,000 calories, and many need more than that; so the 'serving' size of a food is a standard measure helpful for understanding nutrient content, but a 'portion' size is relative to the individual.

    A person with more energy needs will need bigger portions to meet their body's needs, and should be aware that the information on the food label will be written lower than what they're ingesting, and vice versa.

    Jay Patruno
    Jay PatrunoRegistered Dietitian, NourishRX

    Focus on The First Three Ingredients

    It can be overwhelming, but don't just assess food items based on the claims at the front of the package. Always look at the ingredient list. The ingredients are always listed in descending order, from the highest to lowest amount. This means the first ingredient is present in the largest amount. Pay attention to the first three ingredients, as they make up the most of what you are eating. Stay away from ingredients that list refined grains, hydrogenated oils, or sugar as their first ingredient.

    Also, if it is a long ingredient list, the food is likely to be highly processed with many artificial ingredients.

    Lisa Young
    Lisa YoungNutritionist and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, Dr. Lisa Young Nutrition

    Consider Different Nutrient Values

    One piece of advice I give my clients is to use the serving size as a reference point, not a recommendation for their serving size. Everyone's needs are different, and it is okay to stray. I also recommend looking at the percent daily values for guidance. For things like saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium, we are looking for a low amount. For things like fiber and protein, we are aiming for a higher amount.

    As a general rule, you want to aim for 10 g of fiber, 20 g of protein, less than 10 g of added sugar, less than 10 g of saturated fat, and less than 800 mg of sodium at most meals. These parameters help my clients reach their health goals and stay on track.

    Faith Krisht, MS, RDN
    Faith Krisht, MS, RDNDietitian, PCOS Nutrition Answers

    Break Down The Lable Line by Line

    The biggest piece of advice I give my clients regarding the nutrition label is to go one line at a time. Don't just look at the label in its entirety, break it down to really understand what the words, numbers, and percentages mean. Always start at the top of the label, and work your way down until you've reached the bottom. Take a look at it one more time from top to bottom, and then focus on the nutrients of concern.

    All nutrients on the label are important but when dealing with certain medical conditions, it's important to understand which nutrients take priority over others. Working with a Registered Dietitian will help you feel comfortable and confident when looking at labels in the store.

    Kaysha Quiles, RDN
    Kaysha Quiles, RDNRegistered Dietitian

    Focus on Personal Health Goals

    I advise my clients to read food labels for information that is specific to them. You don't have to read every single thing on there to make good health choices. If I am working with someone who is aiming to consume less sodium to help lower their blood pressure, then I recommend they focus on reading just the sodium listed. If I am working with someone who has an iron deficiency, I recommend reading just the iron listed. It is nice to choose products with higher fiber and lower added sugar most of the time, too, for overall health.

    Everyone's health goals are different, and can change over time. I advise clients to read for information that is going to be helpful to them.

    Jenna Stedman
    Jenna StedmanCognitive Performance Dietitian, Master Nutrition Lab