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Learn to Read … Nutrition Facts Labels

Warning: Contains peanuts. Photo by Mary Reed.

You see it on many food products you buy – a nutrition facts panel. But when’s the last time you actually read one? More importantly, do you know what you’re reading? Nutrition literacy can be the difference between bonking or kicking ass on your next outing, so here are some nutrition facts ABCs:

Serving size is one of the most commonly ignored or misunderstood parts of a nutrition label. Don’t just look at the serving size; be able to translate that into real life. “People don’t realize how large a half of a cup or 8 fluid ounces is – or how small,” says David Holben, professor of food, nutrition and hospitality at Ohio University. That mini bag of chips has just 200 calories? Sorry, my friend, that’s 200 per serving and there are three servings in there, so that’s 600 calories. Serving sizes are based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

Carbohydrates, or carbs, don’t strictly belong between the words low and diet. In fact, David says, carbs should be the major part of an active person’s diet. According to the federal guidelines, carbs should account for 45-65 percent of your daily calories. The key with carbohydrates is to try to eat whole grain products – whole wheat, brown rice and so on.

Fat should account for 30 percent or less of your diet. ‘Good’ fats are unsaturated: monounsaturated (olive oil, avocadoes, peanuts) and polyunsaturated (salmon, tuna, pumpkin seeds). ‘Bad’ fats are transfats. If you find the word hydrogenated in the ingredients, put it back on the shelf. Transfats sneak into your diet in processed foods, including products as innocuous-seeming as crackers and peanut butter. So read the label! Saturated fats (meat, dairy) should account for less than 10 percent of your daily dietary intake, meaning only a third of your total fat intake.

Cholesterol is also broken down into ‘good’ (HDL) and ‘bad’ (LDL). The daily recommended intake is less than 300 milligrams. “Use that nutrition facts panel,” David advises, “it will give you a number, say, 20 milligrams, but then it will also give you a percentage beside it. And that will tell you the recommended intake, so you know you will have eaten that percentage of the cholesterol limit.”

Protein should provide 10-35 percent of your dietary calories. Try to limit your saturated fat intake when you get your protein – that is, don’t get all your protein from bacon. If you’re vegetarian, combine foods to get complete proteins (beans and rice, chick peas and sesame seeds, peanut butter and bread).

Sodium intake should generally be kept under 2,300 milligrams. When you work out and sweat, you do need to replace that salt, which is why sports drinks contain sodium. “Eating some salty foods is good enough,” David says, but he warns to look out again for processed foods, which often put your sodium intake over the edge.

Vitamins and minerals are also listed as straight numbers and a percentage of your daily recommended allowance. Not all vitamins and minerals are listed. “If you put half of your plate full of vegetables, a quarter meat, a quarter starch, then you’re probably on your way to getting adequate vitamins and minerals,” David says. For women, however, iron can be a problem so supplements are probably a good idea.

Between the lines you won’t necessarily find other information important to your nutritional health. Look elsewhere to find out if the product is organic or if it’s made with genetically modified organisms.