Ideally, most of the food we eat would be natural, whole foods that don’t come with nutrition labels. But we’re all human; sometimes we’re in a pinch and need a quick snack, other times we just want to munch on something that comes in a convenient package.
Regardless, making the healthier choice comes down to reading your food label and examining the nutritional breakdown and ingredients.
But what exactly does that mean? People tend to just focus on calories—which are certainly important—but there are other items on the nutrition label that deserve your attention.
We asked registered dietitians to reveal the biggest things you should look out for on your favorite packaged foods. It’s worth more than just a quick scan.1. SERVING SIZE
Many packaged foods will try to disguise themselves as “healthy” by breaking up serving sizes into smaller portions. For instance, 9 grams (g) of sugar doesn’t seem like a lot for a cereal, until you learn that one serving is only 3/4 of a cup—and who eats less than a cup of cereal?
“Serving size does not always match the amount that you will be eating or drinking,” says certified exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. “Always make sure you are taking into account how many servings of that food or drink you plan to consume. If a bag of chips has three servings, but you eat the whole bag, you have to multiply everything on the label by three.”
The FDA is rolling out new nutrition facts criteria, which will include more realistic serving sizes (no more claiming that a serving of ice cream is a mere 1/2 cup). But the deadline of those guidelines got pushed back to 2020, so in the meantime, be mindful of how much food you'll actually eat when you read the label.
The average adult eats 94 grams of sugar a day, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That’s more than double the recommended max, which is 36 g of added sugar per day for men.
While these added sugars don’t include naturally-occurring sugars—like the kind in fruit and dairy—packaged foods tend to sneak in sugar for taste. White recommends finding something with the lowest amount of sugar possible — but if that's unavoidable, stick to less than 10 g of sugar per serving.
The new nutrition labels will include rows designated to added sugar, which is a major feat for people looking to cut back on the sweet stuff. But in the meantime, deciding how much added sugar is in your food may take a little bit of math.
Try this trick from Natalie Allen, R.D., ME.d., clinical faculty of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University: Look at the total grams of carbohydrates on the nutrition label and subtract the grams you get from fiber. Of that number, less than half of the carbs should come from sugar. So if you are eating something that has 20 g of carbs and 4 g of fiber, you would want it to have less than 8 g of sugar.
If you want to take a simpler approach, just avoid anything that has sugar, or any variation of it—there are over—listed as one of the first three ingredients, says White.
When eating packaged food, you should know exactly what you’re putting into your body. If you're not eating a whole food, it helps to choose a packaged option consisting of whole ingredients. When you jump down to the ingredients, they will be listed in order of weight, so the final product will contain the highest amount of the first ingredient and the least of the last one. The shorter the ingredients list, the better, says White.
Although traditional wisdom says you should avoid any ingredients that you can’t pronounce or aren’t familiar with, reading the ingredients list is a little more nuanced than that, says Allen.
“Just because a word on the ingredient list [is something] somebody doesn't know about or hasn't heard of, doesn't necessarily make it something bad,” she explains. “A really common ingredient that's listed on foods is cholecalciferol, and that is just a very nice and fancy way of saying vitamin D.”
Instead, she says to focus on the first few ingredients, particularly the first ingredient, the most. Those should typically be easy to read and pronounce.
Whether you’re looking to build muscle or need a satiating snack, protein is an important macronutrient to look out for on a nutrition label. Protein fills you up and helps repair your muscle tissue after strength training, Allen explains, which helps them grow bigger and stronger.
For a snack, Allen recommends 5 to 10 g of protein if you’re sticking with a packaged food. Ideally, you want a minimum of 10 g, but that’s harder to find in a store-bought snack, unless you reach for a protein bar or drink. If you’re eating something that’s particularly carb-heavy, like pretzels or crackers, she recommends pairing it with nuts or a nut butter for an extra dose of protein.
Meals should have 30 grams of protein, including those frozen dinners you pick up from the freezer section.
One micronutrient that is often overlooked but important for your overall diet is fibre. “Americans in general need more fiber,” Allen says. “It fills you up. It keeps your colon healthy. It also can help with weight management. So, that's one good thing to look at on food labels.”
White suggests sticking with foods that have at least 3 g of fiber per serving. Although fiber is mostly found in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, you can still find it in packaged goods, like protein bars, cereal, and whole grain bread.
Fats aren't the enemy, but one to keep an eye out for is partially-hydrogenated oil, a type of trans fat.
Trans fats can raise your body’s bad cholesterol, lower its good cholesterol, and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association. Packaged foods are supposed to eliminate all trans fats by 2018. While some companies are already nixing trans fat altogether, others haven’t made the move yet.
The other fats listed on the panel (saturated fat and total fat) are fine, as long as they are within your daily limit. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat, says White, which translates to about 55 g to 83 g a day for a 2,500 calorie diet. Good fats, such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fats, are necessary for your overall diet and can help protect against heart disease.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health US.