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Understanding Nutrition Fact Labels

August 18, 2021 | Diabetes and Nutrition Wellness


One of the best ways to take greater control of your health is by better understanding what you eat and drink in a day. Fortunately, the Nutrition Fact labels on nearly everything we buy gives us this exact information. All we have to do is know how to make sense of it all.

“Every year an estimated 71,000 people in Pennsylvania are diagnosed with diabetes,” said Jeril Goss, Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist and Manager of Penn Highlands Endocrinology and Diabetes Nutrition Wellness. “By understanding how to build to a nutritious diet, you can reduce your risk for diabetes, and nutrition labels play a big part in that.”

Serving Information
The serving size (amount you typically eat or drink) should be the very first thing you look at because the rest of the information on the label refers to the serving size. For example, if you eat a half serving, you will consume half of the calories listed on the label. Something you may not realize is that the serving information is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.

Calories
As a quick refresher from high school biology class, calories are a measurement of how much energy you get from a specific serving of food. How many calories should you consume for a healthy body weight? It depends. While 2,000 calories per day has long been the general guideline, you may need more or less depending on age, sex, height, weight, activity level, and other factors. You can find your estimated calorie needs at the USDA website “My Plate Plan”.

Nutrients
The nutrients section gives you a list of key nutrients that impact your health. But keep in mind, the impact may be positive or negative, and the label doesn’t tell what is good and what is bad. That is why you need to have a little bit of knowledge about it to make sense of the label. A great way to think about it is to think about the nutrients you want more of and the nutrients you want less of. 

The nutrients you want less of include: saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. In general, Americans consume too much fat and sugar, and these nutrients are all associated with adverse health effects. Too much saturated fat and sodium are associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, while too much sugar can make it difficult to meet nutrient needs without having too many extra calories.  This can lead to a wide variety of health issues.

The nutrients you want more of include: dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Unlike saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, Americans generally do not consume enough of these nutrients. Fiber can decrease constipation, lower blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels, while also reducing your caloric intake. Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis, anemia, and high blood pressure.

Percent Daily Value
Next to most of the nutrients, you will see % Daily Value (or %DV). These percentages tell you how much one serving of food contributes to the total amount of that nutrient you should consume each day, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. For instance, if the %DV listed next to sodium is 28%, one serving of that food gives you 28% of the total amount of sodium you should consume in one day. This helps you understand if the food is low or high in a particular nutrient. Generally, 5% DV or less is considered low, and 20% DV or higher is considered high.

Penn Highlands Healthcare provides diabetes management and nutrition therapy to people of all ages, whether newly diagnosed with diabetes, uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy with pre-existing diabetes, gestational diabetes as well as those who need general medical nutrition therapy. For more information, visit www.phhealthcare.org/service/diabetes-and-nutrition-wellness.