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Reading Nutrition Labels For Weight Loss Success

Every manufactured food in the USA and the UK has to have a nutrition label on it: it’s mandatory and governed by the FDA (USA) and FSA (UK). This is great news for consumers because it allows us to make smart choices when it comes to food, but what information is most valuable on the nutrition label?

Don’t judge a food solely by the front label – it can be wildly misleading. Just because the name brand has the word “organic” in it doesn’t mean the food inside is organic! You still have to read the labels to get the right information. Fortunately, in the UK anything truly organic will have a 'certified organic' label, and there are currently six approved organic control bodies in the UK. If you want to know more about this then the UK Government website has some information available HERE.

Again, although it's difficult to ignore branding and packaging that's made to look super healthy (remember people are paid thousands to design product packaging), take your time to really look at the label. Lean Cuisine is not always lean. Supermarket 'Healthy' options aren't always healthy. So-called healthy low fat options are often crammed with sugar. I think you get the picture?! So to help you out a little, here are some basics to get you started.

What’s the Serving Size?

First and foremost, look at what the serving size is. It can vastly impact the other information.

Did you know that a serving size of peanut butter is only two level tablespoons (approximately 32g)? That’s almost 200 calories of peanut butter, and most of us consider a “serving” to be way more! I for one LOVE peanut butter!

Similarly, the serving size for butter is a tablespoon (approximately 15g) but many of us use more on our morning toast, or at least my husband certainly does. Be mindful of what a “serving” is so you know how many calories and nutrients you’re actually consuming.

A UK supermarket bought jar of pasta sauce - one serving = 125g (1/4 of a jar) -
A UK supermarket bought jar of pasta sauce - one serving = 125g (1/4 of a jar)

Misinterpretation of servings and nutritional information is very common, unless you read things carefully. My recent experience of this was when we had two boxes of different brand Jaffa Cakes in our workplace kitchen. My colleague exclaimed "well I wouldn't buy these ones again, they're over twice the calories of the other ones!". That's because the serving size of box one was one Jaffa Cake, and the serving size on the front of box two was two Jaffa Cakes! This is written in VERY SMALL text, but the calories etc were much larger, so at first glance it was an easy mistake to make. On closer inspection the box that was "twice the calories" was actually less energy dense per Jaffa Cake.

Also remember: this information is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The FDA and FSA say that, on average, an adult human needs 2,000 calories to live healthfully, but you might need more or fewer than that, and it's also the quality of those calories (a whole other topic for another day). This means that when you see the percentage daily value / reference intake for a certain vitamin or mineral, it will be different for you. Keep that in mind as you read labels.

A UK supermarket bought jar of pasta sauce -
A UK supermarket bought jar of pasta sauce - One serving = 125g (1/4 of a jar)

What are the Ingredients?

Always ask yourself if you would recognize the ingredients in nature. For instance, did it fly, swim or grow? Is it a plant or was it made in a plant? Are there words on the label that would knock you out of a spelling bee? You want words like “pepper”... not words like “Butylated Hydroxyanisole” (yes, that’s a real one).

I personally also try to stick to a general guideline of avoiding too many items with over five ingredients, however it depends on what you need, and again, what those ingredients are, so don't be too strict or hard on yourself...this is not about being 'perfect', it's about awareness and choice.

Previously, the US didn't require “Genetically Modified Organism” or GMO’s (bioengineered foods) to be indicated on the label. This has now changed officially since last year (2022), and more information about this from the FDA is available HERE. In the UK, foods with ingredients that have GMO's are required to have this clearly labelled and there's further information on GMO's from the FSA available HERE. Anytime you can, you may want to opt for non-GMO foods, but it's always worthwhile reading up on what this means, and the previous links from the FSA and FDA can help inform you.

What’s on the Nutrition Label?

You have to decide what your personal limits are for sugar, fat, salt, and calories, although I do work out personal calorie goals for my clients (either for weight loss or maintenance) where desired, as well as macronutrient goals if needed. If you’re watching your salt intake, keep a careful eye on the content in a lot of pre-packaged goods, as they are often excessively high in salt. In the UK, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of salt is 6g (approximately one teaspoon) per day.

When you start reading nutrition labels, you might be disappointed to discover that a lot of your favorite packaged foods aren’t so healthy. If you find that one of your favorite foods is packed with salt or sugar, for instance, pull out your smart phone in the shop and take a photo of the ingredients. Challenge yourself to make a better version at home with wholesome ingredients! You’ll feel amazing when you accomplish this mini-goal.

Alternatively, have a look around at other options, especially if you're in a large supermarket. Is there an alternative with less salt or sugar? I find it useful to know that one level teaspoon of sugar is about four grams, so I try to use that to visualise how much sugar I would be consuming if I ate the product. Of course sometimes it really is worth it...hello freshly baked carrot cake with a thick layer of cream cheese topping (my favourite, and always a planned indulgence that I thoroughly enjoy, no guilt attached).

The maximum amount of 'free' sugars you should be consuming per day for an average adult is 30 grams, (approximately 7 sugar cubes) and this can soon add up!

Ironic Last Tip: Eat More Things That Don't Come with a Nutritional Label

After all this talk about nutrition labels, here’s an ironic last tip: try to make the bulk of your diet consist of foods that don’t have labels. Ask yourself, “Did it fly, swim or grow?” A head of broccoli or an apple won’t come with a nutrition label; aim for those foods! If most of the things you eat do come with a nutrition label then don't worry. Start from where you are, start slow and look at what you may be able to substitute in your diet for less processed alternatives.

I found a discounted meal box subscription really helped me fall in love with cooking and become more confident in the kitchen, and with using a variety of non-labelled ingredients. The other thing that has done me wonders is a soup maker! The combinations I've created from random veg boxes has been amazing, especially with a bit of added herbs and spices.

When you learn to enjoy foods with simple ingredients, your body will thank you with more energy, clearer thinking, and a longer life. What’s not to love?

Please note: This article is intended to be for educational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice or replace professional assessment or personalised advice.

I do not hold responsibility for the information on any links to external websites within this article and information within these links/websites may change at any time or no longer be accessible. Any website pages/links added are also for education purposes only.

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