Q: When I'm looking at the nutrition facts of packaged foods, in which order should I assess that information?
A: When buying packaged foods, it is important to be well versed in reading and deciphering nutrition labels. Let’s go through six key components on food labels, in order of importance.
1. Servings: This is the first place to look because it puts everything into context. Bread is a great example of this. You would think that one serving of bread would be one slice, but this is very often not the case; one serving could be two slices. A good guideline for bread is to look for one with 3 grams (g) of fiber per slice. If the nutrition label says 4g fiber but the serving size is two slices, you’ll know that isn’t the bread for you.
2. Calories: The type of calories you are going to eat is very important, but the total calories you are going to consume is more important. It is good to have general guidelines for yourself regarding how many calories you are aiming for at each meal. If you aim to eat 450 calories per meal, then you can compare the calories in the food you are looking at to this total.
3. Protein: Once you look at the total calories in your packaged food, the next step it to see what makes up those calories. The first place to go is protein. You want a minimum of 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. When you are younger than 40, you can occasionally get away with a meal containing 10 to 15 grams of protein. Once you hit 40, though, you need to ensure you are hitting the 25- to 30-gram mark, as age-related anabolic resistance doesn’t allow you to get the same protein synthesis (e.g. muscle building) effect from a lesser amount of protein that younger people get.
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4. Fat: Your guidepost for fat intake should be around 15 grams per meal, unless you are on a very low-carb diet—then you will need closer to twice that amount. Food labels always show the amounts of saturated fat, and sometimes they show trans, mono, and polyunsaturated fats as well. If you are actively trying to restrict saturated fat to reduce your LDL cholesterol, stick to 5 to 7 grams per meal.
5. Carbohydrates, fiber, and sugars: This is an area of a food label that is very important, as many people focus on calories and fat but don’t concern themselves with the types of carbohydrates they are eating. In her book, Ultimate You, Booke Kalanick gives great guidelines for making sense of this part of the nutrition label. She recommends that you add the total amount of fiber and protein together, and then subtract that number from the total amount of carbs. If the answer you get is between five and 10, then this is a good food to choose. If the number is less than five, then it is a great fat-loss food.
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6. Ingredient List: The ingredient list is going to tell you a lot about the food that you are eating and the amounts of different ingredients that are in it. This is particularly important for determining the quality of carbohydrates as well as if the manufacturer has crammed in any preservatives or food dyes that you would rather not consume. Ingredients lists are ordered from the ingredient present in the greatest weight (and usually amount) to the ingredient present in the lowest weight. So if you are buying a protein powder that says it contains whey protein isolate on the front of the label, but whey protein concentrate is the first ingredient listed followed by whey protein isolate, you are going to want to keep looking for a different powder, one that has whey protein isolate listed first. If you are going to pay a premium for the purest form of whey, it should be the primary protein in the product you are buying. I recommend avoiding foods that have sugar by any name (dextrose, corn syrup, organic brown rice syrup, etc.) in the first three ingredients, although keeping sugar out of the top five or avoiding it completely would be ideal.