What you need to know to make the best use of the Nutrition Facts Label
The nutrition facts label can help you make better food choices, but only if you know what you are looking for. Labels for similar diced tomato products are shown side by side for reference.
Know your estimated calorie needs. If you don’t know what your calorie limit is for the day, the calories listed on the Nutrition Facts Label won’t be very useful. Look at the calories per serving and the serving size to estimate how many calories you would eat and then compare that to your daily calorie needs. In the example, ½ cup of diced tomatoes has about 35 calories. If you use the whole can in a recipe meant for two, you’d eat about two servings or approximately 70 calories. For a low-calorie food like canned tomatoes, multiple servings don’t increase calories very much, but with a higher calorie food it would be more important to watch portion sizes.
Know what you probably need more of. Most Americans do not consume enough fiber, potassium, calcium, and Vitamin D. Increase your intake of these important nutrients by consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy or dairy alternatives like soy or almond milk. A single food seldom provides 100% of any nutrient, which is why the dietary recommendations emphasize a variety of foods in the diet. One serving of canned tomatoes would contribute to your daily intake of potassium, fiber, calcium, and Vitamin C for the day as well as hundreds of other nutrients and micronutrients not shown on a nutrition facts label.
Know what you probably need less of. Most Americans consume too much sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and alcohol. Although ‘sugars’ are listed on the nutrition facts label, added sugars are not. Some foods (fruit, dairy, vegetables) are naturally high in sugar, but may not have added sugars. Check the ingredients list to see if your food has added sugar. In our example, the label on the left is a ‘no salt added’ product and it contains about one-tenth of the amount of sodium as the product on the right. Although both products contain little sugar, the product on the left has a small amount of added sugar as seen listed in the ingredients list. These tomatoes contain no fat or cholesterol; typical of most vegetables.
Use the ‘% Daily Value’ column to know if a food is high or low in a nutrient. Because the percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, they might not be accurate for you. However, they can be used to determine relative nutrient content. In general, foods that provide 5% or less of a specific nutrient are low and those that provide 20% or more are high. In our example, the tomatoes on the left are a very good source of Vitamin C. Why aren’t the tomatoes on the left? I’m not sure – this stumped me! The FDA allows citric acid to be called Vitamin C because, although not identical, they are very similar in structure and function. However, both ingredients lists show citric acid in about the same amount! My guess is that the company decided to list the citric acid as Vitamin C on one label and not the other.
Don’t forget the food! The nutrition facts label is a nice tool, but don’t forget its limitations. It only lists a very small number of nutrients and there are a lot of things it doesn’t tell us. Some foods can seem healthy if they have vitamins and minerals added (like cereals), but it’s always better to get nutrients from a whole food. All healthy diet recommendations come back to the same basic ideas: choose whole and less processed foods (shorter ingredients list); eat a variety of foods from all the food groups; and eat smaller portions.
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My Strategy for Eating Breakfast
There’s a common phrase repeated about breakfast that I don’t even have to say because we’ve all heard it a million times. [You’re probably repeating it to yourself right now!] We’ve heard it because it’s true. Most of the energy (calories) used by our body is used for bodily functions; breathing, heart beats, brain function, cellular function, etc., all of which continue at night without any food intake. In the morning, our body needs energy to refuel from the night’s activity and to be ready for the waking hours.
For many people, morning is also one of the busiest times of day making it easy to skip breakfast or make unhealthy choices. If you fall into this category but would like to eat breakfast, you may find the strategies below helpful.
Choose three meals and don’t get too fancy.
Save the splendor for another meal or the weekends. Your breakfast-in-a-hurry needs to be simple. Three different well-balanced breakfast meals should be all you ever need. To be well balanced, choose foods from at least 2 food groups; three is better. If you count calories, breakfast should be around 1/3 of your calories for the day. “But won’t I get bored?” you ask. Probably not. It’s likely that you already have a limited breakfast rotation. However, if you are drastically changing the kinds of foods you eat for breakfast (e.g. from donuts to oatmeal), it will take a while to adjust to the new flavors.
Be honest with yourself.
I recently suggested smoothies as a breakfast option to a client and he told me, “I just won’t do it. I know myself and I just won’t get out the blender.” Kudos to him for saying that! Know yourself and the context of your mornings (how much time you have, what foods you like, where you are most likely to eat, etc.,) and create a breakfast plan that fits into the context of your life and morning, not the other way around.
Make it a no-brainer.
Once you decide what 3 meals you will choose from, make it so easy that it is 100% achievable to eat breakfast every day. Always have all the ingredients, tools, containers, and equipment on hand for all three of your breakfast meals. If your meals need some preparation, schedule prep time when you know it will happen. If you need to pre-portion cereals or cut up fruits, have containers and snack bags. Your morning breakfast routine should have minimal steps.
I hope you’ve already thought of some ideas that will work for you. Below are some specific examples that may or may not work for you, but hopefully they should offer a good starting point!
Instant oatmeal with blueberries and yogurt. Take a packet of plain instant oatmeal, add water, ½ cup of frozen blueberries, and sweetener (optional) and microwave in a container for which you have a lid. Cover the oatmeal, grab a spoon, a single serve yogurt from the refrigerator, and a napkin, put into a lunch bag and head out the door. It’s ready to eat when you get to work, or take a few extra minutes to eat at home.
Smoothie. Add ½ cup of Greek yogurt, ½ c milk or milk substitute, ½ cup berries and blend. Eat with a bag of pre-portioned dry cereal or granola bar. Smoothie combinations are endless. Adjust the milk or add ice for a different texture, try adding spinach, kale, protein powder, peanut butter, etc. Pour into an insulated, lidded cup with a straw and eat on-the-go.
Grab bags. Create grab bags once a week that contain any of the following: 1) Apple, cheese stick(s), almonds. 2) Single serve yogurt, granola bar, piece of fruit. 3) Dry cereal, single serve milk, fruit.