In the past we’d pluck bowstrings, pick berries, and live off the land. Today, every food—from sour cream to Sri Lanka dipping sauce—is up for grabs at the grocery store.
The options are endless, and so are the opportunities to overshoot on our calories and macronutrients. Nutrition fact labels can steer you away from or towards the foods that’ll support your health goals best—that is, if you know how to read the label the right way.
Some sections on Nutrition Facts labels are critical to understand for weight loss. Others are antiquated at best and misleading at worst. Below, we’ll scan the Nutrition Facts label, from top to bottom. I’ll teach you how to read and interpret Nutrition Facts labels to reach your weight loss goals.
At the top of a Nutrition Facts label, you’ll find the number of servings in the package or container and the serving size. Serving sizes are provided in familiar units (you’ll find serving sizes like “1 cup” or “6 pieces”). This number is followed by the metric amount (like the number of grams).
Does Serving Size Matter for Weight Loss? Serving sizes are not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink. This number simply reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink. Depending on the food, it could help you lose weight to eat 3 “servings” of one food and only ½ a “serving” of another food.
That said, the calories, fat, and protein breakdowns on the Nutrition Facts label is based on this serving size. Pay attention to the serving size and how many servings there are in the package to measure your calories and macros correctly. For example, if a serving of popcorn listed on the label is 1 cup, and you eat 2 cups, you’ll have to double the calories and macronutrients listed further down on the label.
Next on the Nutrition Facts label, you’ll find the amount of calories in each serving. A calorie is simply a standard unit for measuring energy. Calories describe how much energy our bodies receive from eating or drinking a certain food or beverage.
Do Calories Matter for Weight Loss? It’s true. You have to be in a caloric deficit to lose excess body fat. But, unlike what we’ve been taught for decades, calories are just one small piece of the weight loss puzzle. Counting calories alone will not necessarily lead to fat loss. Cutting too many calories, in fact, can lead to muscle loss, malnutrition, and a slower metabolism.
The first macronutrient listed on a Nutrition Facts label is fat. Most labels will tell you the total fat in grams per serving followed by a breakdown of specific types of fat within a serving of the food item. You might find how much saturated fat, trans fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat is in each serving.
Does Fat Matter for Weight Loss? Gone are the days when we believe that eating fat makes us fat. Fat is a necessary macronutrient for healthy and sustained weight loss, satiation, and reduced cravings, as well as mental health.
There are many types of fat, some healthy and some unhealthy.
Nutrition Fact labels also tell you how much cholesterol is in each serving. In our bodies, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in our blood. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Does Cholesterol Matter for Weight Loss? Here’s the catch with cholesterol. The cholesterol in your food is not the same as cholesterol in your bloodwork! In fact, many foods that are high in cholesterol will not directly affect the cholesterol in your bloodstream, and vice versa.
Eggs, for example, receive a bad reputation for having high cholesterol. In truth, eggs are a great source of protein that don’t drive your blood cholesterol higher. If you want to know the truth behind cholesterol (and how I naturally lowered my very high cholesterol in 6 months), read my cholesterol guide.
Sodium (or salt) is a mineral found in many foods. Your body needs sodium for normal muscle and nerve function. It also helps keep body fluids in balance. Salt is beneficial to our brains. It aids in digestion and helps you build stronger bones. Salt is essential for hydration and optimal health.
Does Sodium Matter for Weight Loss?
We have to stop fearing salt! The consequences of getting too little salt is oftentimes much more damaging than getting too much. Evidence from studies published in the medical literature suggests that most people should eat around 1½ to 2 teaspoons of salt per day. More salt may be needed if you are an avid exerciser and lose salt in sweat or via urine.
Struggle with sugar cravings? Low salt may be the cause. Sodium depletion increases the reward system, making sugar more appealing; increasing the intake of salt may actually reduce sugar cravings and even reduce the reward that you get from consuming sugar.
Carbs are sugar molecules that appear in foods in the form of sugars, starches, and fiber. Simple carbs are digested quickly and easily. Complex carbs give us more sustained energy and take longer to digest.
Carbs are an excellent source of energy for your body. Oftentimes, carbs are what your body uses and needs for fuel.
On a Nutrition Facts label, you’ll find the Total Carbohydrate per serving (typically in grams). Under Total Carbohydrate, your label will tell you how many grams of carbs come from Dietary Fiber and how many grams of Total Sugars and Sugar Alcohol are in each serving.
Do Carbs Matter for Weight Loss? Not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs (like sweet potatoes, beans, and vegetables) keep us full, aid in digestion, and offer a wealth of vitamins and minerals. Simple carbs, (like table sugar, white bread, chips, and cake) offer little nutritional value. Plus, excess simple carbs are stored in our bodies as fat.
Eating the right amount of carbs is critical for weight loss. Counting your carbs, though, can get a little confusing. Many people today count “net carbs” instead of total carbs. Net carbs refer to the type of carbs that are absorbed rapidly and have a high glycemic index (meaning they cause blood sugar levels to quickly rise after eating).
Nutrition Fact labels won’t tell you the “net carbs” in a serving. To calculate this number, subtract the grams of fiber and half of the grams of sugar alcohol listed on the food label from the total grams of carbohydrates.
Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in your body. Some proteins are antibodies that bind to foreign particles, like viruses and bacteria, to help protect our bodies from sickness. Some proteins act as messengers that signal our bodies to complete an important biological process. Many proteins in our bodies are structural, providing support for cells and allowing the body to move.
On Nutrition Facts labels, the king of the macronutrient is listed at the very bottom. Your label will tell you how many grams of protein are found in each serving.
Does Protein Matter for Weight Loss? Your body weight is directly affected by the adequacy and quality of the protein in your daily diet. In fact, if you’re struggling to drop weight, it’s probably because your diet lacks protein. Protein is so important for weight loss, I often only focus on counting my calories and protein each day.
This powerful macronutrient keeps you full, increases muscle mass, repairs cells, minimizes the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and helps your body metabolize fat.
Now you know how to read a nutrition label. But all these numbers mean little if you don’t know your own body and needs. In my free Macro & Calories Guide, I’ll teach you how to calculate your daily macros and calorie intake and apply them for results. Download my free guide here!