I confess: I'm afraid of nutrition labels. Partly because I'm loathe to learn that the box of crackers I intend to buy (and promptly eat) is actually a bomb of trans fats and sodium, but more so because a label can be a confusing, time-consuming read. The latter is why I made a brave move and recently hit the store aisles with Lisa Lanzano, MS, RD, nutritionist and owner of Essential Nutrition in Boulder, Colorado, and talked with Sue Moores, RD, a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Both encouraged me to break down the Nutrition Facts panel found on packaged products into manageable chunks. “Don't get paralyzed by it all,” Moores says. The plan: Start with one type of food, such as energy bars, and get to know the most pertinent information on those labels. Settle on a few go-to brands. Next tackle breads. Then yogurt. And so on. Armed with this method, I discovered that interpreting nutrition labels and making healthy choices isn't such a complex undertaking after all.

10 quick tips to get started

  1. Ingredients are listed highest to lowest by weight, so the items at the top of the list make up the bulk of the food. Look for ingredients lists containing predominantly unprocessed, whole foods.
  2. A lengthy ingredients list may be a sign that the product has unneeded extras like artificial preservatives, particularly if you don't recognize the terms. (To learn the names used for additives and preservatives, go to CSPI's Food Safety Website.)
  3. When considering serving size, keep in mind that packages often contain more than a single serving. You may have to double, or even triple, the amounts of everything on the label to get an accurate picture of what's in a single container.
  4. Meals should add up to approximately 600 calories. Snacks should be around 200 calories.
  5. The recommended daily value (often shortened to DV) is 65 grams of fat for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. If a food has 20 grams of fat per serving, consider whether it's worth eating almost a third of your daily fat allotment in one serving.
  6. Don't just look at the trans fats number. Avoid all products containing shortening or any kind of partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
  7. The upper recommended DV for sodium is 2,400 mg a day. Look for low-sodium versions of your favorite foods.
  8. The food should have a minimum of 2.5 grams of fiber per serving. To maximize intake, look for whole grains in the ingredients list: “whole” (as in whole-wheat flour) or “oat” (as in oatmeal).
  9. Divide grams of sugar by four to get the number of teaspoons of sugar in one serving — a clearer visual. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugars.
  10. Know your daily protein needs: Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Multiply that number by 0.8. For a 150-pound woman (68 kilograms), that comes out to about 55 grams.

Confused by label acronyms such as DV (daily value) and RDA (recommended dietary allowance)? For a complete explanation of these and other dietary acronyms, read "What are Daily Values?"

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