Healthy choices

Learning how to interpret nutrition labels can help you make the right food decisions.

Do you seek out healthy meals on the road or just stop at the nearest cheeseburger joint? Eating healthy foods on the road is not difficult if you know what to eat and where to eat it, and nutrition labels can guide you to a savory snack that tastes great and can still help you manage your health.

Nutrition labels, located on the outside of a box or package of food, list the nutritive value of the food based on a 2,000 or 2,500-calorie diet. But what does that mean to the average hungry person?

If you are trying to lose weight or want to eat healthier and have more energy, nutrition labels, combined with a basic knowledge of the food guide pyramid, can direct you to healthier choices, even in truckstops and your favorite fast-food restaurants.

Unless you know what you are looking for, the nutrition facts listed on a label can be confusing. What do the all of the terms and serving measurements mean? A simple definition of each ingredient and number will help you decide what and how much you need to eat.

Serving size
This number is the recommended portion of food to eat. It may be a weight measurement, such as grams, or the number of pieces of food (for example, one cup equals 12 crackers).

Servings per container
This is the number of servings per package. Servings per container can be tricky, because a package of food may contain eight servings, so eating the whole package will supply many more calories than a single serving. Pay attention to this number and examine the nutritive values based on the recommended serving of food.

A calorie is a unit of energy, and daily caloric intake is based on individual needs and activity level. A person with a high daily activity level needs more than a person who lives a more sedentary lifestyle. Calories are necessary for energy and proper functioning of the body, but eating more calories in a day than you burn can cause weight gain.

Calories from fat
Choose foods with less than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Total fat
This measurement is the total fat grams in one serving of food. A person eating a 2,000-calorie diet should consume no more than 65 grams of fat per day, and a person eating a 2,500-calorie diet should consume no more than 80 grams of fat per day. A serving with a total fat of 13 grams will be 20 percent of the daily fat value, so watch your fat grams carefully. Fat is necessary for healthy tissue, but too much may cause heart and health problems.

Saturated fat
Saturated fat comes from animal and dairy products and tropical oils. Eat foods with two grams or less saturated fat to prevent heart disease.

Trans fats
Trans fats are a fairly new addition to nutrition labels, but they are included on every nutrition label as of January 2006. Trans fats increase cholesterol levels and should be avoided. If a food has the words “partially hydrogenated oil,” then it has trans fats.

Although most people love to sprinkle a little or a lot of salt on a meal, limit sodium intake to 2,400 milligrams a day to avoid high blood pressure.

Cholesterol is found in dairy products, egg yolks and other foods. Limit consumption to 300 milligrams daily.

Percent daily values
Based on a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet, the percent daily values measure how much of each value you should consume in a day. Five percent or less of the value is low, and 20 percent or more is high.

Protein, carbohydrates and dietary fiber
High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets have swept the nation, but nutritionists caution against a one-sided diet that does not incorporate all of the food groups. Although a low-carb diet may promote rapid weight loss, eat a well-balanced diet from all food groups to maintain health and weight. A diet high in fiber also promotes regularity and weight control.

How Much?
How do you know how many calories you should eat in a day, and how much to eat of each food group? And what are food groups, anyway? Calorie counting and food measuring may seem tedious, but has the answers to all your diet questions. Based on the redesigned food pyramid, the website helps you decide which eating plan is right for you, based on level of activity, weight, height, gender and age.

The serving amounts for each group have changed, and the website lists foods to eat for each group. For example, the vegetable group is divided into five subgroups, based on nutritive value. Fruits and vegetables have their own group now, and selection tips in each group contain advice on what to eat and how to eat it.

Dietary Guidelines on the website provide insight on a healthy diet, and the interactive part of the site, My Pyramid Plan, allows you to plan your own healthy diet based on caloric needs and the food pyramid. It’s simple, free and might even be fun.

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be a burden, but good food choices are essential to maintaining weight and energy. Seek out something healthy and new, even on those fast-food menus. Romaine and spinach salad, anyone?
–Rachel Telehany