How to Read a Nutrition Label at a Glance: 4 Quick Tips

nutrition label with magnifying glass
Reading nutrition labels is important, but we don't all have time to dissect them. These four tips can help you evaluate labels with just a glance.

by Lindsay Tigar

While getting to the gym is a great step toward staying healthy and boosting your energy levels, eating right is crucial to help you maximize those hard-earned benefits.

If you're ready to transform your eating habits to feature healthier ingredients, you'll want to start paying attention to food labels. Things like serving size and added sugar can dictate howhealthy (or unhealthy) an item is for you, so understanding how to read a nutrition label is an important skill. But we don't all have time to dissect the numbers in the middle of a grocery store — so here are four things to look out for when reading a label at a glance:

1. Check Servings and Calories

As a basic rule of thumb for shedding weight, you need to sweat out more calories than you consume. For those who are aiming to drop a dress or pant size, reducing calorie intake is the key to success. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recommends turning your attention not only to calorie count but to serving size, as you might mistake the contents of a package. The ODPHP notes that any item with 400 or more calories per serving is on the high side, so try to make that number a benchmark.

2. Be on the Lookout for Added Sugars

When learning how to read a nutrition label, the truth isn't always sweet. Nearly all packaged foods will have some sort of hidden, added sugars, all under a variety of names. These might include names you recognize — like cane crystals, high-fructose corn syrup, liquid fructose and raw sugar — as well as sneaky names you might miss, including carbitol, diglycerides, disaccharides, erythritol, glucitol, hexitol and countless others.

The ODPHP encourages less sugar in anyone's diet, considering it provides very little nutrition. Another rule of thumb is to make sure added sugars are not one of the first few ingredients, as that means it's likely the sugar percentage is much higher.

3. Watch for Sodium Levels

In addition to making you feel bloated, too much salt in your diet can also increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, especially for older adults. That's why the ODPHP suggests staying on the low side of 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day, or around ¾ of a teaspoon.

To help keep those salt hankerings at bay, increase your potassium intake. The more potassium in your diet, the healthier your heart will beat. The mineral can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including beets, greens, white potatoes, sweet potatoes and, of course, bananas.

4. Get Smart About Your Fats

Not all fats are unhealthy. In fact, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — those found in fish, nuts, vegetable oils and avocados — are essential parts of your diet. On the other hand, saturated and trans fats can wreak havoc on your cholesterol level and could increase your likelihood of developing heart disease. As you look at your food labels, make sure you're getting the right amount of the right fats to keep your blood pumping and body happily performing.