Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column for news.com.au. This week, Dr. Zac Turner helps with a question about how to read nutrition labels on foods correctly.
ASK: Hi Dr. Zac, I found myself looking at a nutrition label the other day, but realized I had no idea what I’d been looking at: what’s good, bad, and a possible heart attack in the making? Can you help me with a code breaker so I can understand what I’m really looking at? – Jackson, 27, Cairns
ANSWER: It’s important to check Nutrition Facts labels, but it’s even more important to read them and understand the nutritional value of the food you eat. It is something that should be taught in detail in Australian schools. Obesity is one of the leading causes of death in Australia, as well as throughout the western world, and that is one simple method of preventing it.
Also, if we focus on schools and incorporate not only nutrition education but also cooking app, we could change the culture of tuckshops into health stores. The same can be said for the absolute junk that is sold quite often in hospitals. Surely if we cared more about the caregivers/nurses and teachers in our society, we should make sure they are at their peak nutritionally?
So why should you read Nutrition Facts labels? There are many reasons. First, you’re making informed food choices and evaluating the nutritional value of your foods. Here’s a quick game: Pick up a piece of junk food in your pantry and read the nutrition label. You’ll miss out on the saturated fats, additives, and chemicals. Heck, half the stuff in a lot of foods, especially long-life products, have so many preservatives that I’m sure they’d have a hard time passing our health standards today.
Second, nutrition labels can help you control portions. When you understand that each day has a recommended daily intake, you’ll be able to properly control your food portions. Many people are obsessed with counting their daily steps, so why not also count our daily vitamin intake with the same passion?
Remember that the daily doses of the unpleasant should be distributed throughout the day. This means don’t go and have a meal where you deplete your daily levels of glucose, fat, and sodium. I recommend when looking at the daily amounts to always divide it into quarters using one quarter for each meal. That way you won’t reach the maximum goal. Think of daily intakes as speed signs on the highway. If it says 50 km in residential areas, you’re not going any faster or it’s dangerous, and they’ll reserve you. Well, it’s the same for health and food.
If you keep speeding up and pushing your nutritional limits, it will come back to you. No one wants people to crash, so keep these limits in mind and no more than one quarter per serving:
- Sugar (glucose and fructose) is 10 percent of the energy in calories, so 50 grams or 10 teaspoons a day
- Fat is found in many ingredients, but a good rule of thumb is 25 percent of your calories, or 60 grams a day, which is 4-5 tablespoons.
- Sodium is 2300 mg, which is one heaping teaspoon
If you want to take a more active role in your food choices, you should read Nutrition Facts labels by following these simple steps.
- Portion size: Start by checking the serving sizes at the top of the label. These are based on the nutritional value of the food or drink. Did you know that the serving size for French fries is around 18 French fries? That means a family-sized bag is actually meant for the family to share.
- Calories: Your eyes should now look at the calories section. This tells you the number of calories in one serving. Be careful, it does not refer to the entirety. Many people fall for this and end up having five times the number of calories they intended.
- Macronutrients: Now you need to focus on total fat, carbs, and protein. Fat can be healthy, it just depends on the type: saturated or trans fats should be eaten in moderation. Carbohydrates include fiber and sugar. You need to maximize fiber and limit sugar. Protein is essential for a number of bodily functions, so always prioritize this.
- Micronutrients: Now it’s time to look at the little ones, vitamins and minerals. Almost all of them are essential for life, so it’s good to have an idea of which foods have which micronutrients.
- Recommended Daily Intake (RDI percentage): Now that you know the nutritional value of food, it’s time to understand how valuable it is. See the RDI percentage. You are looking for foods that are low in calories but rich in RDI macro and micronutrients.
- List of ingredients: Finally, you need to look at what holds all of these values together. This is listed in order of weight, so things at the top are more prominent than things at the bottom. This is where you’ll find the pesky preservatives and additives.
These steps will help you make more informed food choices and help you avoid making poor dietary choices. If you have any further questions, I recommend that you speak with your doctor or a dietitian.
You have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Zac Turner has a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He has worked as a registered nurse, both in Australia and internationally, and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist. | @drzacturner
Originally Posted as Dr. Zac Turner on What You Really Need to Read on Nutrition Facts Food Labels
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