Whether you’re on a specific diet to manage your weight or you need to eliminate or reduce certain dietary elements for health purposes, food nutrition labels are the best way to know what you’re about to eat. Until the late 1960s, nutrition labels contained limited information. Today, they contain loads of data to help you make sound nutritional decisions. There’s only one problem: So much data can be overwhelming. How do you know what to prioritize for your dietary needs?
Here, we dive into some fundamental facts that will help you understand how to read nutrition labels.
Size matters! Right off the bat, many folks get lost reading nutrition labels as they review the serving size, which is found at the topmost part of the nutrition label. That data corresponds to the serving size, which is important to keep in mind because, often, there is more than one serving size in a food item or package. Plus, the defined serving sizes are often very different from the way we prepare and serve a certain food.
Take avocados, for example. The serving size for an avocado is 50 grams, or approximately one-third of a whole fruit. But most people slice an avocado in half (it’s the best way to open the fruit) and scoop out the flesh.
If you want to stick to the recommended serving size, it helps to learn the secret to slicing and dicing an avocado perfectly. Don’t worry; you don’t need to throw away the leftovers! Keep the rest of your avocado from turning brown by squeezing fresh lemon juice over the flesh and wrapping it tightly in plastic wrap for future snack attacks.
At the very bottom of a nutrition label, you’ll find the “daily value” upon which the other nutritional information is based. The column along the right side of the label tells you what percentage of your daily needs can be met by this food, assuming your diet is around 2,000 calories a day. According to Food and Drug Administration guidelines, food with a DV of 5% or less is considered low in that nutrient, whereas 20% or more is high.
Calories are listed below the serving size on nutrition labels. Often, there are two numbers listed: one is the number of calories per serving, and the other is the number of calories per container. Not sure how many calories you should consume? True story: Your daily calorie consumption depends on numerous factors, including your body type, activity level, gender, and, yes, your age. For most people, 2,000 calories per day is an average estimation. To get a personalized estimate of the daily calories you need, visit myplate.gov.
Think about your calorie consumption as you would think about managing your finances. You want to get the most value for every dollar, right? Ditto with your food! Avocado is considered a nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense foods provide substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients with relatively few calories. One-third of a medium avocado (50 grams) has 80 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins and minerals, making it a healthy, nutrient-dense food choice.
Over the years, fad diets urging people to reduce or eliminate fats from their diet have led to confusion about this important nutrient. There are different kinds of fats, which affect the body in different ways. “Good fats,” like the kind naturally present in a tasty avocado, are essential for your body!
While “bad fats” (saturated fat and trans fat) are linked to higher instances of heart disease and stroke, “good fats” (unsaturated fats) help your body absorb more vitamins A, D, E, and K. Unsaturated fats are essential for normal growth and development of the central nervous system and brain.
Fun Fact: One-third of a medium avocado (50 grams) has only 1 gram of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fats, and 6 grams of unsaturated fats.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making small dietary changes to achieve better health, such as replacing foods higher in saturated fats with healthy foods containing good fats, like avocados. Try using avocado as the base of egg salad or subbing traditional spreads on your sandwiches with creamy avocado. Believe it or not, you can also use avocado as a substitute for butter, cream, and other fats in some of your favorite baked goods! Check out some dessert recipes here.
Anyone can have high blood pressure, but some people are more likely to have high blood pressure if they eat foods high in salt. Over time, having high blood pressure can cause heart failure, stroke, and kidney issues. You can usually find the amount of salt per serving about halfway down the nutritional label next to the “Sodium” category.
Avocados contain zero sodium. Woo-hoo! Additionally, avocados are a food source that contains potassium (6% DV), which helps lower blood pressure.
Carbohydrates provide calories, or energy, for our bodies. Our bodies break down carbs into glucose (a type of sugar), which becomes the primary energy source for our body’s cells, tissues, and organs. Unfortunately, most Americans exceed the recommended limits for added sugars in their diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories per day.
Avocados are a fresh fruit, so they do not contain any added sugars. But they do contain fiber — 11% of the recommended daily value to be exact! Fiber-rich diets can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease while giving you that “happy tummy” feeling at the end of a meal.
Amp up your fiber intake with a fresh take on your dipping strategy! While we all love our tortilla chips, consider benching them and putting veggies and fruit into the game! Try asparagus spears, baby carrots, bell peppers, celery, apple slices, and more!
Did you know every cell in the human body contains protein? They’re the building blocks of life, helping our body both repair cells and make new ones. A healthy diet includes protein, and a nutrition label gives you the skinny on the protein content of the food you want to eat. Avocados, for example, have 1 gram of protein per serving, so they make a great addition to other proteins like red meat, chicken, fish, beans, and other legumes.
In the most detailed portion of the label, you can see the micronutrients each food provides. These include vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, as well as calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, among others. Don’t be fooled, though — there’s nothing “micro” about the power of these micronutrients — and avocados have nearly 20 vitamins and minerals!
The copper in avocado, for example, is an essential mineral that helps keep the blood vessels, nerves, immune system, and bones healthy, while magnesium helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function, supports a healthy immune system, keeps the heartbeat steady, and helps bones remain strong.
Now that you’ve mastered the basics of reading a nutrition label, explore how registered dietitian and nutritionist Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, LDN counsels her clients and followers
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