When you walk the aisles of the supermarket, do you grab packages and toss them into your cart, or do you stop to turn a product over and read the label? According to a new study, the latter may help you fend off weight gain.

After collecting information from 25,000 men and women to see who checked nutrition information, researchers found that 58 percent of men frequently or always read labels compared to 74 percent of women, and that habit has a greater impact on women’s weight. On average, female label readers have a body mass index that’s 1.48 points lower than non-readers versus a BMI difference of just 0.12 points for men. For an average woman, that can mean a difference of nearly 9 pounds!

In my private practice, I sometimes meet clients at the grocery store so we can check out labels together. In my experience it can be a powerful tool—if it’s done correctly. One source of confusion for my clients is the reference to 2,000 calories. Take a peek at any label, and you’ll see “…based on a 2,000 calorie diet.” Because of this wording, I’ve had many clients assume that they should be striving for a daily intake of 2,000 calories, but the truth is that’s just a reference number. The Food and Drug Administration had to choose something to provide consumers with perspective, so they selected 2,000 based on the average needs and intakes of both men and women. But that may be above or below your body’s needs.

For example, based on this Mayo Clinic calorie needs calculator, a 30-year-old 5’4” woman with an ideal weight of 125 pounds who is somewhat active only needs 1,800 calories a day. And on an inactive day, that number drops to 1,650.

This difference is key: Overestimating your daily needs could lead to weight gain or prevent weight loss, and while being off by 350 calories may not sound like much, it’s enough to support an additional 23 to 35 pounds of body weight, depending on how active you are.

For five more potential ways you can be fooled while reading labels, check out my previous blog, including how to decipher a serving size versus a portion size, and the single most important thing to look at first on any package.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you always read labels? Does anything about them confuse you? Please share your thought on Twitter to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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