Food labels contain a lot of useful information, but it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Fortunately, you can eat healthy without having to learn a lot of complicated scientific equations or mathematical calculations.

Eat Healthy by Learning to Decipher Common Food Labels

This is a simple guide to clearing up the most common sources of confusion about food labels and mastering easy choices for better eating.

Common Sources of Confusion

1. Regard all sugars equally. Manufacturers sometimes use many different names for sweeteners, knowing that consumers may be trying to avoid sugar. You’re still getting a lot of empty calories if a food is high in molasses, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup.

2. Pay careful attention to serving sizes. Portions are another tricky area. You may expect to get 4 servings out of a small ice cream container, but the label is actually based on half that much. Ensure you know how many calories you’re really eating!

3. Know “The Clean 15” and “The Dirty Dozen.” Certain produce can be loaded with pesticides, so it’s important to know which foods you should spend the extra money on and buy organic. Dr. Andrew Weil has the list on which foods you should always buy organic and which are ok to buy non-organic. His article can be found here.

4. Be vigilant about trans fats. The “trans” fats found in many processed foods have been associated with heart disease and other health issues. A product may contain these fats even if the label says “0 grams.” That’s because the FDA allows this as long as the amount is below 1 gram. And be careful about low-fat foods. Many times sugar is added to “low-fat” foods so look at everything and make sure you don’t choose a food that’s actually worse for your health! Your best protection is to eat mostly whole, natural foods.

5. Hold out for 100% whole wheat. Phrases like “100% wheat” or “stoneground” sound promising but may actually be the refined grains you want to eliminate. Always check the label to ensure that whole wheat or some whole grain is listed as the first ingredient. If you have gluten sensitivities, then find products that are labeled non-GMO and gluten-free.

Master the Easiest Choices

1. Load up on vegetables and fruits. Getting most of your calories from fresh produce is the simplest way to eat healthy, and you can mostly forget about reading labels. Keep in mind that frozen and canned varieties are comparable in nutritional value.

2. Eat more fish. Most experts agree that the benefits of eating at least two servings of fish a week outweigh any concerns about mercury. It’s always best to choose wild caught fish like salmon, halibut, or mahi mahi. When buying canned tuna, choose “light” rather than “white” products. They’re likely to be lower in mercury and usually cost less.

3. Choose the leanest cuts of meat. Look for packages that include the words “round” or “loin.” Meat that is labeled “extra lean” typically has half the fat of meat that is labeled “lean.”

4. Buy plain full-fat yogurt. Yogurt is a power food that most people can eat even if they are lactose intolerant. Adding your own flavors to plain yogurt lets you avoid added sugars. Try stirring in fresh fruit, granola, or cinnamon.

5. Include healthy fats in your diet. While it’s best to limit saturated fats and avoid “trans” fats completely, there are other fats that are good for you. Go ahead and indulge in sensible servings of extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado.

What you eat plays a big role in the quality of your life and your overall well-being. A simple rule is to eat primarily non-processed, whole foods. When you do need to buy any processed foods, learning a few basics about food labels can help you make healthier choices for you and your family.

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