african american woman nutrition label box shopping

Last week, the FDA proposed a new nutrition facts panel for the sides of all labeled food sold in the US. Changes to the label are significant. Requiring more realistic portion sizes; a larger, emboldened calorie count; and the inclusion of “added sugars” as a sub-category underneath “sugars” in the carbohydrate section all seek to improve customer awareness of the important qualities in the package they’re preparing to buy.

Alas, these changes are only a mere proposal and are still in the air - (you can add your voice to the conversation here) – and we still have to work with the labels we’ve got. But how?

Nutrition facts labels give lots of meaningful information to help people with fitness goals, but what should you be looking for? And what makes it the most valuable?

Of course, I’m here to help.

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The five things you should be mindful of whenever you must pick up a packaged item are the amount of fiber per serving, the amount of sugar in each serving, the amount of protein per serving, the amount of calories per serving and the amount of servings per container. They all work in concert with one another to help you build the best meal you can.

The servings-per-container number is the most important number of all – yes, more important than the calorie count itself. It’s cute to buy a pot pie for dinner, until you look at the label and see that the pie actually serves as two servings and are 1,000 calories a piece. Surprise – you’ve been had! You’ve been took!

Use that servings-per-container number to help you figure out just how many calories you’ve been eating. If a given package is actually 5 servings – like, say, a box of Hamburger Helper – and you’ve been eating half of the box today, the other half tomorrow at lunch,  you’ve not been eating the expected 310 calories. You’ve been eating almost three times that much.

When you look at an item with more than four grams of sugar in each serving, take a closer look at the amount of fiber, as well. Not a single gram? Maybe a measly two grams? Sugar and fiber work in concert with one another to give you the necessary energy you need, while also helping your body avoid the blunt force to your blood sugar levels. Having too much fiber with no sugar might be unpleasant, but too much sugar with no fiber means you’ll not only have a sugar high, but you’ll crash miserably afterwards. We all know The ‘Itis.  We don’t want that.

And what about the protein? Well, protein is essential for remaining full and feeling satiated without binge eating on carbs. You want to get a good amount of protein into each meal, because that’s your best bet for avoiding wandering towards the vending machine or the fridge without thinking about it.

Protein values should naturally be high – it’s in everything we consume. Dark, leafy vegetables? Protein. Beans, legumes? Protein. Although in miniscule amounts, protein can still be found in fruits and root vegetables, as well. Unrefined grains, quality cuts of meat, dairy… protein, protein, protein. And while there might not be a set amount of protein to shoot for, a severe lack of protein in a large package should be a red flag that you’re headed into unsatisfying territory, and should possibly look elsewhere to find the sustenance you need.

In fact, that’s probably the most important lesson one can glean from the side of a nutrition label. Too much sugar, not enough fiber, scant protein, high calorie counts and obnoxiously-designated serving sizes are all enough to make you want to give up on labeled foods altogether and head towards the produce aisle… and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. Lots of natural sources of vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, yummy carbs, fiber, and more are all you need to get it going in the right direction, label or not. In fact – as I always say, I think your body would thank you for it!

Erika Nicole Kendall is a trainer certified in women’s fitness, fitness nutrition and weight loss coaching who also chronicles her own 160lb weight loss journey on the award winning blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss. Hit her up on Twitter, or check her out on Facebook.