Reading food labels

Knowing how to read food labels is an integral part of adopting a healthy diet. It takes some getting used to as well as a little know-how.

Given that there are more than 3000 additives used in processed foods, it can be challenging to fully understand the risks and benefits of all the ingredients that appear on a food’s label.

The first rule is to try and minimize the amount of packaged foods we consume. However, even then, we sometimes will resort to packaged foods. So you need to have some basic information on how to read food labels. We will cover these basics in the next lesson.

Knowing how to read a food label enables you to decide if the product is nutritious, if it is best used as an occasional treat, or if it should be avoided altogether.


Some basic guidelines

Serving size

This is the calculation upon which all the other numbers on the food label are based. Food manufacturers try to limit the serving size so that the amount of calories and fat will appear smaller, especially in such foods such as cookies and chips.

Example food label
Food Labelling | Jozilife within Food Labels Chips – Writings and Essays Corner

In the example above you can see that the recommended serving size is just 15 chips or 28 grams. By only consuming 15 chips you consume 160 calories, 90 of which come from fat. You also consume 16% of your daily fat recommendation and 8% of the daily recommendation for saturated fat. However, oftentimes the entire package or container is consumed, which can start from containing 4 to 8 times the recommended serving size!

Calculate the calories of consuming the entire package of chis (contians 8 servings). How many calories does it contain? How many grams of fat? What is the percentage of recommended fat intake that is in a pack of chips? 

In your opinion, should you avoid this type of food and how does it affect your body and goals when consumed regularly? 


This represents the number of calories per 1 serving. A calorie is a unit of energy or heat that your body generates from the food you eat – from the macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Remember that proteins and carbohydrates contain about 4 calories of energy per gram.

How many calories per gram are in fat? And in alcohol? 

I am not a proponent of counting calories. This goes against the principles of intuitive eating and is not something I do or ask my clients to do either. The above mention is for reference.

A key to good nutrition is to consume primarily wholesome foods high in nutrients. The objective is to eat mostly foods with a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio. An example of such foods is vegetables, which are usually low in calories but high in vitamins and minerals.

Have you ever felt hungry even after you have consumed a rich, caloric meal? Then ask yourself if that meal was nutritious? It might be that you consumed plenty of calories, but that they were low in nutrients. Your cells will not get the nutrients they need and so your brain will signal you that you still need food. But you just ate a high-calorie meal. This is how weight gain can occur. You are eating enough calories, but your cells are starved.

Hydrogenated fats and oils

These should be avoided however they are oftentimes not listed on the food label. Instead, take a look at the ingredients list. Hydrogenated oils can act as irritants, generating free radicals, which have been impacted with many degenerative diseases.


Sodium on the food label represents the amount of sodium in each serving, so again – check the amount of servings per container. Examples of foods with high amounts of sodium include crackers, canned soups, packaged meats, potato and other chips. The total daily value acceptable for sodium is 2,500mg. This amount can be easily surpassed, especially if you have a taste for salty foods or add salt to your meals. Restaurant foods and fast foods are often high in sodium, as it also acts as flavor enhancer so be mindful there too.


Sugars in the food label refers to the number of grams of simple sugar per serving. The sugar content refers not only to sweeteners added to the product, but also to sugars that occur naturally. Naturally occuring sugars for example are fructose in fruits and lactose in milk. Monitoring the amount of sugar we consume is key to maintaining good health. The majority of simple sugars in the diet should come from fresh fruits. 


Besides reading the food label it is also important to read the list of ingredients. The contents are listed in order by quantity – the predominant ingredient in the product is listed first, the smallest last. This is an important point.

The ingredient list is also the place where the direct additives are listed.

Exercise: read the ingredient list of your favorite chocolate or cookie. What is the first ingredient listed? Is it sugar? What does this mean for your health? 

Common food additives

There are many food additives in packed and processed foods. It is a good idea to get familiar with them and to learn how they can impact our health. In general I recommend avoiding any food that contains an ingredient you don’t know or that you can’t pronounce. It is an easy starting point.

If you would like to learn more about the common food additives, have a look at these articles:

12 Common Food Additives – Should You Avoid Them?

Common Food Additives and Chemicals Harmful to Children


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