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The only things you should pay attention to on a nutrition label

Tech Insider logo Tech Insider 2/17/2017 Sarah Schmalbruch

Nutrition Label Skitched © Provided by Business Insider Inc Nutrition Label Skitched

Looking at a nutrition label can sometimes feel like looking at a whole lot of gibberish.

How much sodium is too much, and are those random nutrients on the bottom even important?

We spoke to nutritionist Karen Ansel (MS, RDN), author of "Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger Live Longer," to find out the things you should be looking for on the new nutrition label that many foods are already using, but that all foods will be required to have by July 2018.

Click on to find out what's most crucial on a nutrition label.

Serving size

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Ansel says serving size is the most important thing and the first thing you should be looking for on a nutrition label because it lets you know how much of that food constitutes one serving.

So instead of eating a whole bag of chips or pouring yourself a bowl-full of cereal, check the serving size to make sure you don't end up unknowingly eating three servings when you only meant to eat one. Ansel says that portion control is a key to losing weight.

Calories

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Calories go hand in hand with serving size, since the nutrition label tells you how many calories are in one serving of that food. Ansel says it's good to be aware of how many calories you're consuming and how that fits into the amount of calories you need per day.

While this amount differs from person to person, according to Ansel, most people need between 1800-2000 calories per day. So if you're eating a food that has 900 calories per serving, just know that's around half of your calorie intake for the day.

Saturated fat

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Rather than looking at the total fat in a food, Ansel says it's best to focus on saturated fat. Nutritionists now realize that it's not how much fat you're eating, it's the kind of fat you're eating that matters most.

According to Ansel, eating too much saturated fat causes an increase in cholesterol, so it's best to avoid foods high in this fat. No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.

You can find out whether you're staying below that percentage by looking at the percent daily value column located all the way to the right on a nutrition label. This tells you the percent of your daily value of calories a certain nutrient makes up.

Fiber

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According to Ansel, most people don't eat even half of the fiber that they need in a day, which, for the average woman is 25 grams and for the average man is 38 grams.

Ansel says that fiber is crucial because it helps to control hunger in a number of ways. It acts as a sponge in your stomach, expanding and keeping you fuller much longer than other nutrients do. Plus, it encourages the growth of good bacteria in your stomach, the kind of bacteria that keeps hunger hormones in check.

Increasing your daily fiber intake and replacing unhealthy foods with fiber-rich foods is a key to losing weight naturally, Ansel says.

Added sugars

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Like fat, sugar isn't altogether bad for you. According to Ansel, there's a specific kind of sugar you should be looking out for: added sugar.

This is sugar that's gratuitously added — meaning it adds no nutritional value — to processed foods when they're being made. It's different from natural sugar, which, like the name suggests, occurs naturally in foods like fruit.

Ansel says that right now, most people are getting 13% of their daily calories from added sugars. She says this percentage should really be no more than 10%, though.

Sweet beverages like soda and flavored lattes are the biggest sources of added sugar, according to Ansel. So if you're looking to cut back, start with what you're drinking.

Protein

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Ansel says that while most people get enough protein, they're not eating it in the right way. Most Americans have a tendency to eat the bulk of their protein at the end of the day, during dinner.

But Ansel says studies have shown that those who consume their protein more evenly throughout the day build more muscle than those who only eat their protein in the evening. And muscle is a big part of what keeps your metabolism going. Plus, protein helps you to stay fuller for longer, so if you're eating it throughout the day, you'll be less tempted to snack.

Unlike carbs and fat, protein cannot be stored by the body, Ansel says. So once you consume it, you either use it or you lose it. That means that if you're not starting your day with protein, your body has no stored source of the nutrient that it can draw from to get the fuel it needs throughout the day.

To combat this, Ansel says that you should aim to eat 20-30 grams of protein per meal, depending on your body weight.

Sodium

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Sodium is one of the more straight-forward nutrients on nutrition labels. Ansel say that the average healthy person (someone who doesn't suffer from heart disease) should cap their daily sodium intake at 2300 milligrams.

She says that most people end up eating closer to 3300 milligrams in a day, though. The nutrition label will tell you exactly how many milligrams is in one serving size, so just keep an eye on that and make sure that you're not eating an inordinate amount of sodium in one sitting.

Potassium

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The bottom of the new nutrition label is dedicated to nutrients that most people are deficient in. These include iron, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Ansel says that although potassium should be in the spotlight, it often takes a backseat to nutrients like sodium.

According to Ansel, potassium acts as an antagonist to sodium; while sodium raises your blood pressure, potassium helps to lower it. However, very few people get the 4700 milligrams of potassium they need per day, partly because most foods don't contain the nutrient in large doses.

Ansel's advice is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and beans, all of which contain potassium.

Carbohydrates

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Although carbs aren't unimportant, Ansel says the amount of carbs you should be eating in a day depends heavily on you and what makes you feel good.

"Different people do differently with different amounts of carbs," Ansel says. "I would say more than any other nutrient, it’s really not a one size fits all equation."

Rather than focusing on how many grams of carbs you're eating, try instead to be aware of the quality of the carbs you're eating.

According to Ansel, processed carbs like white rice, white bread, and crackers won't keep you full nearly as long as whole wheat carbs.This isn't something you'll find on the nutrition label, but you can find it on the ingredient list.

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