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Know the (nutrition) facts

These days we can learn all kinds of things about the food we eat from the labels on the packaging — like how much we should have, and what exactly is in it. Reading all of those labels can mean doing a little bit of math, but it might also change some of the choices we make when it comes to the things we eat, drink, and snack on.

Jamie Withrow, a clinical dietician at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center (CRMC), said the biggest surprise on the labels for most of us is probably how much we should be eating.

“The first thing to look at when you are reading a label is the portion size. And then measure it out,” she said, “For example, find out how much cereal should be in a bowl. Something like granola might only be a third of a cup for a serving. Then everything on that label would have to be adjusted accordingly if you have more than a third of a cup.”

Next, look at the total calories there is per serving. If you are eating double the servings, then don’t forget you have to double the calories and nutrients you are eating too.

There are buzzwords now that get our attention and make us sigh with a sense of relief when we shop, like ‘fat free’ and ‘low fat’. An item that is fat free will have less fat but often has other undesirable ingredients added as a substitute.

“When manufacturers take the fat out of a product, they often have to add in more sugar and sodium to improve the taste and mouth-feel for customer satisfaction,” said Withrow. “And that does not mean it’s better for us.“

“I’m a firm promoter of good fat. Sugar is more damaging to our health than the fat will ever be,” said Withrow. “The added sugar in our food is part of the reason that low-fat diets rarely work. Fat isn’t that bad for us. My opinion is the regular item is often better. That’s not across the board, but look at the rest of the label and you might be surprised.”

Ingredients are typically listed by weight. That means if sugar is one of the first items on the list, diabetics and others limiting their sugar intake should take note that, because there’s probably a lot of it in the product.

Sugar is also listed as other names on our food labels so be sure to look for words like corn syrup, dextrose, honey, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, sucrose, and maple syrup.

Withrow has another tip to keep in mind when you are shopping the aisles at the grocery store: “The shorter an ingredient list is, the better it probably is for you. Fat free products usually have a list that is quite a bit longer.”

One important change to our labels is on the way.

“Food companies are going to be forced to use more realistic portions,” Withrow said. “Some of the things that people buy regularly, ice cream for instance, trail mix, even Pop Tarts look like they are packaged in single servings, but a lot of times they are packaged in two servings, and sometimes more.”

The information on the food labels can guide us in purchasing items high in some of the content we should be getting, too, like 100 percent of our fiber, vitamins and other nutrients.

The daily percentages on our products are often based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie per day diet. Know what your daily target is and then vary your calorie intake accordingly if you are looking to gain, lose, or stay at a certain weight.

Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible for a balanced diet.

On the flip-side, a lot of us need to eat more fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Getting enough calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

A diet high in fruits, grain and vegetables that contain fiber and are low in saturated fat and cholesterol might help reduce the risk of heart disease.