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Let’s Get Healthy! Properly Reading a Nutrition Label

Cheryl Lathrop

Last updated: November 22, 2016 3:36 pm

Halloween’s over! Thanksgiving’s over! December holidays are over! Just New Years looming on the horizon!

Like most, you probably ate and drank too much. It sure was fun—but—now the New Year is here. Time to think of those New Year’s Resolutions. At the top of many people’s lists is to “get healthy.”  This usually means the dreaded “diet and exercise”.

We all know that the exercise part means to move more. Join a gym. Take a yoga (or spinning!) class. And, at the very least, walk some/more. The famous 10,000 steps a day is a good goal. Pick up a pedometer that counts steps for you. If you don’t have enough by the end of the day, go to your local mall or supermarket where it is warm, dry, and safe, and walk the aisles.

Now the second half: diet. Not only do you want to manage your calorie count, but you also want to eat nutritiously. A calorie count made up of soda and cupcakes isn’t going to fuel your body very well. And that’s what food is—fuel for our bodies. So let’s put the right stuff in. How? By reading the (government mandated) nutrition labels found on the food you choose. Nutrition labels help you make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet.

Nutrition label? Yes. In 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed requiring all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling. Then in 1991, nutrition facts and basic per-serving nutritional information were required; food labels had to list the most important nutrients in an easy-to-follow format. And almost every year since has seen additional improvements to labeling. 1

The FDA has a great overview of what we should pay attention to when we read these nutrition labels to best understand and use them 2. So, go get a box out of the pantry and read along…


Image courtesy of FDA website

Image courtesy of FDA website

1. Start here.

This is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods. It is provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces.

2. Check calories.

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. This can help you manage your weight. Many Americans eat more calories than they need to, and also don’t meet the recommended intakes for a number of nutrients.  Pay attention to the serving size and know how many servings you are consuming.

3&4. Limit these nutrients. Get enough of these nutrients.

The top of the nutrient section in the sample label shows you some key nutrients that impact your health. They are separated into two main groups: “limit” and “get enough.” This can help you limit nutrients you want to cut back on and increase nutrients you need more of. The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts (or even too much). Most Americans don’t eat enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

5. Footnote.

See the red arrow pointing to the * used after the heading “% Daily Value.” It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which tells you “% DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet”. This statement must be on all food labels; it shows the recommended dietary advice for all Americans based on public health experts’ advice. 3

6. Quick guide to % Daily Value (DV).

The % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients for a 2,000 calorie daily diet. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.


Check out FDA website to learn more —for example, more information on the controversy surrounding trans fats and calcium. And reduced fat, low fat, and non fat.

It’s good to include getting healthy in your New Year’s Resolutions. Check with your doctor first before embarking on any exercise too different or strenuous. And practice reading those “Nutrition Fact” labels.


Have a Happy New Year!


  1. http://blog.fooducate.com/2008/10/25/1862-2008-a-brief-history-of-food-and-nutrition-labeling/ 

  2. http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/labelingnutrition/ucm274593.htm 

  3. http://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/Dietary_Reference_Intakes.aspx