By Sally Kuzemchak, RD , Sally Kuzemchak writes frequently about nutrition and health and has worked in weight management and diabetes education as a registered dietitian. She lives in Ohio with her husband and son.
Quick: How often do you look at the food labels and nutrition facts on the products you buy?
If you said frequently, you're being smart about your health: Adults who read food labels and nutrition facts slash twice as many calories from fat as those who don't give them a look, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. But that doesn't mean you have to read every line of the food label, every time you shop. Whether you want to gain energy, protect your heart, lose weight, or more, you can make the best choices for your objective by scanning a few select pieces of information in the nutrition facts. Here's where to look depending on your health goal, plus the spot that deserves a second glance.
To Gain Energy
Focus on...whole grains Scan the ingredients list for the word whole before grains like wheat, corn, barley, rye, and rice. (Millet, amaranth, quinoa, and oats are whole grains, too.) Whole grains sustain energy because they keep blood sugar stable. Refined carbohydrates (such as white sugar and flour) cause big spikes and drops in sugar levels that can leave you feeling drained, says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Daily goal: At least three 1-ounce servings of whole grains
Glance at...Iron Look for 10% Daily Value (1.8 mg) or more per serving Without enough iron in your blood, your cells don't get oxygen they need, and that causes fatigue, says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. It's especially important to add iron-enriched packaged foods to your diet if you don't eat red meat.
Daily goal: 18 mg for age 50 and younger; 8 mg for age 51 and older
To Lower Cholesterol
Focus on...Saturated Fat
Look for 1g or less per 100 calories. (If the food has 200 calories per serving, it should have no more than 2g of saturated fat.)
Most of the cholesterol in your blood doesn't come from high-cholesterol foods; it's actually made by your body--and the culprit is saturated fat. The more you consume, the more cholesterol your body makes. So even if you see cholesterol free stamped on the package, the food may still be a bad choice if it's loaded with saturated fat. Of course, you can still indulge in a little saturated fat-filled ice cream or cheese now and then--you just have to plan for it. A 1/2-cup scoop of your favorite flavor, for example, may have 13g! Save it for a splurge and shoot for a minimal amount of sat fat the rest of the day.
Daily goal: No more than 10% of your daily calories (for a 1,600-calorie day, that's 17.5g of saturated fat)
Glance at...Trans Fat
Look for 0g in the nutrition facts and no hydrogenated anything in the ingredients list
Trans-free products are easier to find these days, but manufacturers can still claim "no trans fats" if there's less than 0.5g per serving; eat two servings and you may get nearly 1g of trans fat--enough to raise your "bad" LDL cholesterol and worse, reduce your "good" HDL cholesterol. That's why you have to scan the ingredients list, too: "Don't eat it if you see the word hydrogenated," says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, CT. "Look for trans-free products that list liquid canola and olive oils instead."
Daily goal: As close to 0g as possible