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The Key Things You Should Be Looking For On A Food Label

August 12, 2015 4 min read

One of the most important things you can do when you are looking to be smart with your food choices is to check nutrition labels. Whatever your health goal -- be it weight loss, more energy, heart health -- Prevention put together a list that will help you make the best decisions for your particular goal. Have a look:

If you want more energy:

Focus on whole grains. Look in the ingredient list for the world "whole" in front of words like wheat, corn, barley, rye, and rice. Keep in mind that millet, amaranth, quinoa, and oats are also whole grains. You want these because they help sustain your energy by keeping blood sugar levels stable. Refined carbs (like white flour and white sugar) spike your sugar and then it drops, leaving you feeling drained. Try for at least three 1 ounce servings a day. Glance at iron: Look for 10% daily value (1.8mg) or more per serving. Without enough iron in your blood, your cells don't get oxygen they need, and that causes fatigue, says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. This is especially important if you don't eat red meat. Make your daily goals, 18 mg for age 50 and younger; 8 mg for age 51 and older.

If you want to preserve memory:

Focus on Omega 3s. You will usually find this attribute emblazoned on the package. Lots of foods are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and so you won't necessarily find it on the label but on the packaging. Things like eggs, cereal and juices are all great examples of this. Try for 1,000mgs a day. Glance at total fat. Make sure that most of the fat is poly- and/or monounsaturated fat. Most foods that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like oils, list both totals on the label. Add them up, they should be about three quarters of the total fat. Here's a tip, if the label only lists saturated fats and trans fats, subtract them from the total fat to get the unsaturated fat number. A study from the Rush Institute discovered that unsaturated fats may defend against Alzheimer's Disease. Also, a diet in higher in unsaturated fats can improve your cholesterol which can help keep your brain cells healthy. Aim for total fat content that is less than 30% of your daily calories with about three quarters coming from unsaturated fats.

If you want to lose weight:

Focus on calories. Look for a low calorie count and large servings. The 'rule' pretty much says that if you take in 500 fewer calories a day, you will lose a pound in a week. When you are looking at labels, it is hard to know what is too much. Compare similar foods and pay attention to serving sizes. For example, if a servings of raisins is 1.5 ounces for 130 calories and a pineapple snack bowl is 4 ounces and 54 calories, put the raisins back on the shelf. Consider the servings per container is important too. If there are two servings per package, and you normally eat the whole package, than you need to double anything you're reading on a label. Aim for 1,350 calories per day if you are average height and not very active; up to 1,800 if you are tall or if you exercise three or more times per week. Glance at fiber. Try for 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber helps fill you up with fewer calories and it slows digestion which makes you feel fuller, longer. Try for 25 grams a day.

If you want to strengthen your bones:

Focus on calcium. Look for 20-30% daily value which is about 200-300mg per serving. Getting your calcium from food is better than getting it from a supplement. In fact, postmenopausal women who get their calcium from food had better bone density than those who were just taking calcium pills according to a study published in the  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Try for a daily total of 1,000 mg for age 50 and younger; 1,200 mg for age 51 and older. Glance at vitamin D. Look for 10% daily value per serving which is about 40 international units or UIs. Generally speaking, only foods that are fortified with vitamin D like milk, orange juice and some ready to eat cereals, will have it listed on the label (natural sources for vitamin D include wild caught salmon, sardines and eggs). Vitamin D helps move calcium from the digestive tract to your blood. If you aren't getting enough vitamin D, your body may only absorb up to 10% of your dietary calcium. Your daily goal should be 400 to 800 IU for age 49 and younger; 800 to 1,000 IU for age 50 and older. Does this clear things up for you? How do you tackle the task of understanding food labels? For more guidance, check out the BodyRock Meal Plan. More than just a menu planner, this Plan comes with a detailed nutrition guide to help you navigate those grocery aisles and a recipe book with over 70 offerings. Eating well has never been so easy!

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