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What Matters Most on a Nutrition Label (Besides Calories)

If you’re anything like us, the first place your eyes go when you flip over a food package to check out the nutrition facts is the calories. That’s a good thing—keeping a general tab on how many cals you’re taking in, and having an idea how calorically dense a food is, can help you maintain your weight (research actually shows it may help keep you slim). But calories don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell you how your blood sugar will react to the food, how long what you're eating will keep you full, or how many valuable nutrients are inside that package. Plus, calorie counts aren't always accurate—in fact, what's listed on your food label could be off by 25 percent! So look beyond 'em to these other pieces of vital information.

Serving Size
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Serving size (for better or worse) gives you a lens through which you can evaluate the rest of the information on the label. Imagine you’re looking at a bag of granola, with about 200 calories per serving. Not bad for breakfast, right? Then look at the serving size. If there’s no way you’re only going to eat 1/3 of a cup (or whatever the serving size is), then those 200 calories start to look more like 300 or 400. Knowing the serving size can also keep you from overdoing it (like with ice cream; a serving is just a half cup) and also make sure you get enough of the good stuff (a serving of leafy greens can be multiple cups).

The Number of Servings
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The other crucial number when it comes to servings: the number in the package. Often, even foods that look like they should just serve one serving have multiple in them, like a 20-ounce drink that looks like it's for one person, but in fact has 2 1/2 servings in it. Knowing this number can help you control your portions; one study published in the journal Eating Behaviors found that women who knew how many servings were in a pizza ate less than when the food was unlabeled. This can also help when you don't have measuring tools handy. You might not know how many grams of pizza are in the slice you just cut, but you can serve yourself a fourth if the box says serves four, then put the rest away. 

Protein
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The “daily value” percentage for macronutrients like protein is based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet. Since your calorie intake may vary from that, it’s better to look at the number of grams, says sports nutritionist Lisa Dorfman, M.S., R.D., the author of Legally Lean. She recommends that active woman in their 20s, 30s, or 40s get about 60 to 80 grams of protein a day, aiming for 5 to 15 grams at breakfast (though you may need more if you work out in the morning), 15 to 30 grams at lunch and dinner, and 5 to 12 grams for snacks. Think about those numbers when you check out the back of, say, a container of yogurt.

Fat
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Next, take a look at fat. “You don’t want to be fat-phobic, because it’s satiating and helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins,” says Dorfman. “But a healthy, very active woman doesn’t need more than 40 to 60 grams per day.” She advises keeping meals below 15 grams and aim for a max of 10 grams in a snack. “But fat is not just about total grams,” says Dorfman. You also have to look at the types of fat. Nix foods with any trans fat, and when you consider individual foods, remember that you don’t need more than 6 grams of saturated fat (the less heart-healthy type) in one day.

Carbohydrates and Fiber
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Once you've looked at the protein and fat, the last macronutrient to consider is carbohydrates. (Read up on how much protein, carbs, and fat you should be eating.) The nutrition facts will give you the total grams of carbs as well as how many are coming from fiber and sugar. “I’m much less concerned about total carbs than with fiber and sugar,” says Dorfman. “Your body needs carbs to burn fat. Just make sure there’s fiber in there.” Her goal: At least two grams of fiber for every 100 calories (three is even better). Another helpful ratio: One study found that at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates was a healthy rule of thumb. 

Hidden Sugars
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For now, a nutrition facts panel will just tell you the total amount of sugar in a product—not how much of it is added in by food manufacturers. (Do you think added sugar should appear on food labels?) But with a little detective work, you can figure out whether your food has been spiked with extra sugar—an ingredient that has been linked to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. In general, look for ingredients that end in “ose” like glucose, fructose, and dextrose. For a comprehensive list of words that signal added sugars (they're not always so obvious), check out choosemyplate.gov. (And, yes, added sugars from seemingly healthy sources like agave, honey, and evaporated cane juice are all still added sugar, so limit them.)

Ingredients
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No, not everything that’s unpronounceable is bad for you—like these 8 Scary-Sounding Ingredients That Are Actually Safe. But in general, looking for shorter ingredient lists (with words you recognize) will help steer you toward less processed fare. And remember, ingredients are ordered by how much is in the product—so whatever is listed first is the primary ingredient, while those toward the end hold less weight. So if you see white flour (it often appears as “enriched flour”) or sugar toward the top of the list, stay away! Instead, look for products with real, whole foods as the first few (or better yet, only) ingredients. 

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