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It can be daunting trying to read food labels, especially when you’re in a rush to get in and out of the grocery store. However, taking the time to truly understand what’s going into your body is well worth it. The more you practice reading food labels, the easier it becomes.

It’s also a good idea to get your children, depending on their age, in the habit of looking at food labels, too. While at the grocery store, you can try picking out two or three food items to compare and then decide together which is the best choice.

If you’re looking to make wholesale changes to your diet, eating real food is a good place to start. By real food, I mean whole foods (in their natural state), lots of fruits and vegetables, dairy products, 100 percent whole grain breads and crackers, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, natural sweeteners (honey and maple syrup), wild-caught seafood, and humanely raised meats.

Choose foods that are more a product of nature than of industry.  A good way to spot real foods is by reading food labels. It’s best if there are fewer ingredients, you’re familiar with all of the ingredients, or, even better, there is no label, like with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Here are some tips to help you navigate and better understand food labels:

Work top to bottom. The top of the nutrition facts label is important.  That is where you will find the serving size of the food item. Be aware that the serving size on the label may be more or less than what you fix for yourself or even what is recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Calories are listed per serving. Be sure to note the serving size and try measuring it to see how it compares to what you would actually serve yourself.  A guide for determining calorie levels is below:

  • Low calorie: fewer than 40 calories per serving
  • Moderate calorie: 100 calories per serving
  • High calorie: more than 400 calories per serving.

Fat, both the good and not so good kind, is an important part of the diet.  You just want to make sure that your fat calories come from the good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) as opposed to the bad fats (trans and saturated). About 25 percent of your total calories should come from fats. Plants generally provide heart-healthy fats. Remember, with saturated and trans fats, less is better. These fats typically come from animal products high in fat as well as processed foods. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, known as heart-healthy fats, are the best sources of fats.

Sodium: Generally speaking, a low sodium diet benefits everyone. Shoot for food items with less than 200 mg per serving, and avoid processed foods.

Sugar: This includes natural and added sugar. Check the ingredient list to see if sugar was added to the product. You can expect to see sugar naturally in fruits and milk products.

Fiber: Adults need 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day. To calculate the appropriate amount of daily fiber intake for kids, take their age in years and add five grams.

Footnotes: The bottom of the nutrition facts labels is a box that contains the daily value percentages. This is based on a 2,000 to 2,500 kilocalorie diet, which will not pertain to many people. It can, however, be beneficial in providing you an idea if a food item is rich in a certain ingredient.

Ingredient list: Certainly not least, but at the very bottom is the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the first ingredients make up the largest amount of the food item. This is where you should look if you have allergies too.

The more wholesome food you eat, the better.  You’ll get the most nutrients, vitamins and minerals from real foods.

This is a guest post for LifeBridge Health written by Annie Deremeik, RD, LDN, a clinical dietitian at Sinai Hospital.