You have heard the phrase, "Think outside of the box." When it comes to eating better, it is wise to take this advice literally. Think about the nutrition label that is on the side of each and every box and package in the grocery store.
"For someone who is just starting to eat healthfully, reading food labels can be confusing and often leads to people throwing in the towel and going back to their old ways," says Andrea Platzman MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian in private practice in New York City.
If the label looks like an intimidating jumble of numbers, equations and algorithms, have no fear. Here are a few tricks to easily navigate the label-speak and quickly decide if the food you are holding is a nutritional goldmine or a caloric disaster.
Serving size surprise
Who cuts a muffin into four pieces? You'd be surprised. To most people, a single muffin is one serving, but the manufacturer may disagree. The amount of fat and calories depicted on the label may be for just half, or even one-fourth, of the food. "The biggest pitfall is portion sizes," agrees Platzman. "Usually an item doesn't seem too unhealthy until you realize that it contains four servings!"
The low-fat loophole
If a food states "low-fat" on the label, then by law, it must have less than three grams of fat per serving. But that doesn't mean it is low in calories. It might contain more sugar than a bag of candy corn. Be sure to look at the total calories per serving, even if a food is low fat.
The big fat total
With foods that are not designated "low-fat" it's always a good idea to look at the fat content, as well as the total fat per calories. "If something has five grams of fat, that may or may not be a healthy food item," says Platzman. "If the item only has 50 calories, five grams of fat would mean that the food gets 90% of it calories from fat."
All fats are not created equal
Underneath the line that displays the number of fat grams per serving, a food label will show what kind of fats make up the overall content. An ideal food will be very low in saturated fat and contain zero trans fat.