How to Decode Nutriton Labels

Quick tips to make the best food choices.


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The 411 on Dairy

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Check the protein and calcium. Look for regular 6-ounce yogurts with 5 to 6 grams of satiating protein and 5-ounce Greek flavors with around 12. Be aware, though, that Greek versions have about 70 mg less calcium—something to consider if your family doesn’t get enough dairy. When buying nut, rice or soy milk, make sure it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D.


Stick to skim. Nonfat, or at least low-fat, is a top choice for most dairy products, especially if you’re watching your weight. To absorb all nutrients, pair these choices with foods like nuts, seeds, olive oil or fruit.


Consider hormone-free products. Some dairy farmers use hormones to increase milk production. While there’s little research on how this might affect humans, if it concerns you, check the packaging for the organic seal or a statement similar to “from  cows not treated with rbST.”


Limit sugar. Divide the number of grams of sugar by four to visualize the number of teaspoons you’re consuming in a single serving. Look for no more than 3 teaspoons (12 grams) per serving of regular yogurt and about 4 teaspoons (15 to 16 grams) in Greek. If it passes that test, check the ingredients: A fruity yogurt should list fruit. If not, don’t buy it. A better choice: plain yogurt mixed with fresh fruit. Also, choose unsweetened brands of cow’s-milk alternatives.


Go for full-fat cheese. Just be sure to savor it in small portions. Fermented foods, like most cheeses, actually promote gut health.
 


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All About Grains

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Look for real foods. If the ingredients list is as long as your weekly to-dos, put down the package. Manufacturers list items in descending order of weight, so check that whole grains, whole wheat flour, oats or quinoa take one of the top three spots (and make up most of the list) and that sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners don’t. Keep in mind that products with “fortified” flours are more processed, and “enriched” means the grains are refined with a few more vitamins thrown in, so think about skipping.


Check the fiber. Opt for cereals with at least 5 grams and breads with at least 2.5 grams of fiber, which helps keep you full. Confirm the source too: Your best bet is one that lists 100% whole grains. Be aware that inulin is a popular plant-based source used in grain products.


Note the sugar content. Avoid cereals and bars that have 10 grams or more of the sweet stuff—5 to 7 grams is preferable. Breads should have lower numbers: just 0 to 5 grams. Keep in mind that no more than 10% of your total daily calories should come from added sugars. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 13 teaspoons, or 52 total grams.


Consider the timing. When you eat cereal or a bar, think about its purpose. If you’re replacing a meal, it should have around 300 to 500 calories and a protein count of 14 to 25 grams. If eaten as a snack, a bar should contain 100 to 250 calories. As for bread, always choose one that has about 80 calories or less per slice. Or go for “thin” versions that have 80 calories for two pieces.


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Frozen Dinner Dos

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Avoid highly processed dinners whenever possible. For the nights you need something quick, pair a packaged meal with a fresh salad filled with fruits and veggies. Brands that’ll satisfy nutritional needs include Evol, Lean Cuisine Marketplace and Healthy Choice—but that doesn’t include their entire line, so you still have to check the labels. Here’s what to look for:


• Less than 10 grams of fat
• More than 5 grams of fiber
• No more than 800 mg of sodium
• Meals made with whole ingredients

 


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Pick the Best Protein

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FISH. Top choices include salmon, mackerel and tuna, because they have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation in the body. Choose fresh or frozen wild varieties, since they’re more likely to be free of antibiotics and pesticides compared to farm-raised seafood.


POULTRY. Opt for free-range chicken or turkey, which means the birds have access to the outdoors, or look for “no antibiotics administered.” Poultry labeled “certified humane” also meets stricter standards for animal treatment but may be pricier.


RED MEATS. The more marbling, the more fat. Opt for lean, trimmed beef with little white fat showing.