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Understanding Food Labels

That phrase 'you are what you eat' is not that far from the truth when nutrition is considered. And too often, we aren't sure what's in what we're eating. Fortunately, with many restaurants now posting calorie counts on their menus and with so much information available to us online, it is becoming easier to watch what we take in.

Food manufacturers are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include labels on all food product packaging. It is important to remember that daily caloric intake varies by the individual, and especially by age. Children should not follow the 2,000 calorie diet, and parents should consult with a physician for the recommended amount of calories in a child's diet. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet for adults, the labels specify the approximate number of calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, fiber and other nutrients contained in the packaged food. These labels also detail the percentage of the recommended daily value (intake) of essential vitamins and minerals. By understanding how to read these labels and how to use them, you can begin to plan healthier meals and snacks for your family.

The most important fact on nutrition labels is the serving size listed first. All subsequent nutritional information that follows is based on this size. This is important to note because people tend to overeat by miscalculating a true serving size and, in doing so, underestimate their overall caloric intake. Paying close attention to exactly how many servings you consume can help you better track your daily intake of nutrients.

Protein, carbohydrates and fats are part of a nutritionally balanced diet and each plays an important role in maintaining good health. Dietary fat should provide approximately 30 percent of daily caloric intake with the majority of fat coming from polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fat should provide no more than 10 percent of total calories, and trans-fats should be eliminated from the diet if possible. Dietary labels list the amount of total fats, saturated fat and trans-fats per serving.

Last on the label are the recommended daily values of vitamins, minerals and fiber, which are critical to a healthy diet. The recommended daily value of fiber is 25 to 30 grams. Whole grain cereals and breads are good sources of fiber, as well as fruits and vegetables, because they contain more than three grams of fiber per serving. Calcium is another key nutrient that should be incorporated in your daily diet. The recommended daily value for calcium is 1,000 milligrams.

Monitoring the intake of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals can help you achieve your nutritional goals. While Nutrition Facts labels can be used as a general guideline, it is always best to consult your nutritionist or physician if you have special dietary needs.

*Consult with your health care provider before beginning any diet or exercise plan.