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Healthy recipes > cooking & nutrition tips >

Food Label 101

By Mindy Hermann, R.D.

To shortcut the amount of time you spend reading a food label, we’ve put together a guide to the nutrients that matter most for heart health.

Serving size: Listed serving size is a typical portion and is a good starting point for deciding how much to eat. Remember that all information on the food label is based on one serving size, not the entire food container. Thus, if you eat two servings, double the calories, fat, etc. listed on the food label.

Calories: Compare this number to the average 2,000-calorie diet or to the calories recommended for you to maintain or lose weight.

Calories from fat: If this number is greater than about one-third of calories per serving, the food is a high-fat food. Be cautious when including high-fat foods into your diet.

% daily value: Percentage supplied by the standard serving. Foods with lower percentages for total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium are better for heart health.

Total fat: The total amount of fat—including saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated—in the standard serving. Total fat determines calories from fat. Try to choose foods that are low in total fat. If you’re aiming for a 2,000-calorie diet, try to keep total fat to 65 grams per day or less.

Saturated fat: Saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol and should be limited to no more than 20 grams per day, or less than one-third of your total fat. Top sources of saturated fat include meats, whole milk, butterfat, and cheese.

Trans fat: Trans fat, found in processed foods, can raise your blood cholesterol. The prime contributor is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Experts recommend keeping trans fat consumption as low as possible. Look for foods that are trans-fat free. Some restaurants are even eliminating this fat from their menus because of its detrimental effects.

Polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat: Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are heart-healthy fats. Each type should contribute about one-third of your total fat.

Cholesterol: Cholesterol is found only in eggs, meats, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and other animal foods. It can increase blood cholesterol, especially when in foods that also are high in saturated fat. Keep your daily total to no more than 300 milligrams.

Sodium: Sodium is the nutrient linked to increased blood pressure. It is added to many processed foods in the form of sodium chloride (salt) and other ingredients that contain sodium. When possible, choose canned and processed foods without added salt. Try to keep sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day or less.

Dietary fiber: A diet high in fiber has been linked to better heart health. Top sources of fiber include legumes (dried peas and beans, such as split peas, kidney beans, and chickpeas), vegetables, fruits, bran, and foods made from whole grains. Strive for at least 25 grams of fiber daily.

Protein: Foods that are high in protein—meats, poultry, fish, and dairy products—often are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. If a food has a lot of protein, be sure to check the cholesterol and saturated fat numbers. Try to eat 50–60 grams of protein daily.

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