When it comes to healthy eating, understanding what’s in your food is essential. People often rely on the nutrition facts panel to evaluate the healthfulness of a packaged food. It can be a helpful tool to understand some of the nutrients in your food, but it doesn’t tell you everything, and may not be overly helpful when comparing two different foods.
We’ve previously shared how to decode a nutrition label. In short, the nutrition facts panel helps you understand how much protein, carbohydrates, fat (including saturated fat), fiber, added sugar, sodium, and cholesterol there is in any given food. It also tells you how much iron, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium there is. Reviewing ingredients may also give you some additional insight into a food.
This is a great start; however, there are 3 important ore things to consider when making food choices that are not included on the label.
The vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant content.
The FDA requires food companies to label vitamin D, iron, potassium, and calcium content of any food. In some cases such as fortified foods like many cereals, the nutrition facts panel may include additional vitamins or minerals.. If you’re eating a well balanced diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, you may not need to consider this when choosing packaged foods.
But if you’re relying heavily on packaged foods in your diet, it’s helpful to look closely at ingredients and choose products that include nutrient-dense options that are made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans, which will add more nutrients to your day. Ingredients are listed in order of how much (by weight) is in the food. Ingredients listed first or second make up a significant amount of the product whereas those listed further down are in very small amounts.
How much satisfaction this food will bring you
Just because a food has more fiber or less sugar than another food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice for you. It’s important to factor in taste preferences and what you’ll enjoy eating. Satisfaction is an important part of eating and can help you regulate how much you eat. Allowing pleasure in eating is actually associated with eating smaller portions and better overall health. Make room for foods that taste great and you enjoy!
An appropriate serving for you
Nutrition facts panels are required to include a serving size. In some cases, such as BeBOLD bars that may be 1 bar, in others it might be measured in volume (cups) or weight (ounces/grams). In 2021 the FDA updated requirements for the serving size to be more realistic to what people typically eat. However, this still doesn’t tell you what an appropriate amount is for you. The best way to determine how much to eat is to focus on eating to your own hunger and fullness cues.
When it comes to evaluating different foods, the nutrition facts panel is a great tool, but not the only tool. Consider how each food fits into your overall diet and the other benefits it may be offering you beyond the numbers.
Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and the owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, a virtual private practice and nutrition communications consulting business in the suburbs of Boston. She empowers busy women to ditch diets and learn to eat to feel their best without the stress.