How to Read Labels for Healthy Eating

Have you seen examples of these statements on the front of boxes or packages – 100% Natural, Fat-Free, 99% Fat-Free, Zero Calories? The lesson for today’s post is – Don’t believe anything on the front of a box or package. Just like you may have learned in a math or marketing class, you can make any statistic you want support the message you are trying to convey. I’ll help you cut through the clutter when shopping for healthy food.

Starting from the broadest perspective, we should eat as many whole foods (plant-based) as we can and reduce/eliminate animal products (meat, dairy and eggs). Eliminating animal products can greatly reduce our chances of acquiring and stopping the progression of, and in many cases reversing chronic illnesses (heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer, diabetes…). Reducing the amount of processed food we consume is important as well as they are stripped of nutrients and usually high in salt, oil, and sugars resulting in high calorie density (high in calories while lacking nutrients). The result is we can eat a lot of processed foods while not feeling full leading to weight gain and all the impacts that causes. Processed foods have labels on their packages. Here are a few concepts to consider when shopping for healthy options:


The percentages labeled on packages are listed as a factor of fat content in relation to the amount we should consume in a day – Percent Daily Value (%DV) as defined by the FDA. What you want to look for is the percentage of fat in relation to calories. Let’s look at this label as an example.


As you see here this product is showing 11 grams of fat per serving (1 tablespoon) making up 17% of the percentage daily value. On the surface this may not seem too bad even though it is 17% for one tablespoon. How many servings will you be consuming? What we want to look at is the percentage of fat compared to calories. This is not listed on label as a percentage but we can figure it out easily. On this package, look at the bottom left where it lists the amount of calories per serving. Immediately under that it lists calories from fat. For this one we don’t even need a calculator – 100 calories from fat divided by 100 calories in a serving equals 100%. This feels a bit different than 17% doesn’t it? I like to use a lot of Rip Esselstyn’s concepts when looking at food labels. For fat he advises choosing foods whose make up of fat is lower than 25% of the calories. In this case the calories from fat would have needed to be 25 or lower.

Serving Sizes

As I alluded to in the opening of this blog, statements on the front of boxes don’t really mean much. Examples of products stating they are fat-free or calorie free can be quite the opposite. The FDA states that if a serving size contains less than .5 grams of fat or 5 calories a product can claim zero (fat and/or calories). To make statistics work on products looking to make this claim is to make the serving size so small that the make-up of fat and/or calories fall under this standard.

Example – There is a product that contains 17 ounces in the entire package. To ensure fall under this guideline they state there are 1,400+ serving sizes in the container. I used to use this product and I would estimate I used it about 10-12 times before it was empty compared to the 1,400+ listed on the label. Geez, even if I doubled my estimate and used it 20 times that is quite off from 1,400+. Look at the ingredients and that will tell the story as well.


Read the ingredients on the product label required by the FDA and the FDA states, “The ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.”

Look for avoid foods that include oils, sugars and salt especially if they are listed early in the list. If you don’t recognize an ingredient or it’s hard to pronounce it’s probably not a good idea either. Use Google to your advantage here to see what is in it. When a product lists “Whole” on the front of the package inspect what that actually is in the ingredients. Many times it includes many processed ingredients, not making it so whole.

Also at the end of the ingredient list contains the word, “Contains.” Look for foods you may have allergies to and avoid the ones that contain animal products (dairy, eggs and meat).


So many foods are loaded with sodium/salt. To not go over the Daily Recommended Value the FDA recommends (2,300 mg. An easy rule of thumb to remember is to look for foods with sodium less than the calories per serving as 2,300 mg is roughly around the calories you would consume in a day. Looking at the label referenced earlier you will see this product has 120 mg per serving compared to 100 calories per serving. In this case you may want to look for an alternative…not to mention the 100% calories from fat…ouch!


Oils are fat and on average have 120 calories per 1 tablespoon…ouch again! So 100% fat with the highest calorie content per serving = dangerous! I use vegetable broths as a substitute to prepare foods and avoid foods with oil. Look at the ingredient list from the label used above. The first two ingredients are oils and this all makes sense now. The first two ingredients are oils and the calories from fat are equal to the calories per serving (100%).


In 2015 The World Health Organization dropped its sugar intake recommendations from 10 percent of our daily calorie intake to 5 percent. That is about 6 teaspoons (25 grams — of sugar) per day for an average adult.

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” stated Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

When looking at the labels keep this guideline in mind. Remember the fruits you are eating as well as they contain sugar…the best kind though as they are attached to fiber and act as a slow release pill vs. the spikes (ups and downs) processed sugars cause. I always think of the visual when looking at a label – if it shows 25 grams of sugar it’s like consuming 6 teaspoons of raw processed sugar…wow!!! Use the 4:1 ratio when reading the labels – ex. 12 grams of sugar divided by 4 = 3 teaspoons….there is your visual.

I’ll sum this up with tips that help me:


  • Eat as many whole foods (plant-based) as you can. Shop for foods without labels (produce area of market)
  • Reduce/eliminate animal products (dairy, eggs, meat)
  • Fat – shop for foods whose “Calories from Fat” is lower than 25% of the calories
  • Sodium/Salt -shop for foods whose sodium content is less than the calories per serving (1:1 ratio)
  • Oil – avoid and find alternatives; use vegteable broths and other substitutes
  • Sugar – limit the processed sugars; remember the 4:1 ratio from grams listed to teaspoons (the visual is powerful); limit to 25 grams per day
  • Ingredients – read all ingredients; avoid salt, oil, sugars as much as you can; ingredients are listed in order of use in product (highest to lowest); read the “Contains” note and avoid animal products and foods you have allergies

– Add Health to Your Life

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