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Tips for Reading the New Nutrition Label if You Want to Lose Weight

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 4/5/2018 Bonnie Taub-Dix

Woman reading ingredients on bag of potato chips: The new label will list serving sizes that better reflect how much people actually eat, but that doesn't mean those (larger) sizes are recommended portions. © (Getty Images) The new label will list serving sizes that better reflect how much people actually eat, but that doesn't mean those (larger) sizes are recommended portions. The changes aim to help you make healthier choices, but user errors could lead to added pounds.

Over the last 20 years, we've transitioned from counting calories to tracking macros, fearing fat to loving avocado toast and ignoring sugar to demonizing it. Now, after years in the making, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is unveiling a brand-new food label to better reflect what we've learned about the science of nutrition since the original nutrition label design was conceived decades ago. 

Fortunately, the new label – which was approved in 2016 and will be appearing on labels between now and, for some companies, 2021 – looks similar to the old label, so you won't have to decode a more complicated design. But it's still possible that some of the changes could work against your weight-loss goals – if you're reading or using the new label incorrectly. 

Here's what's in store (literally) for the new label – as well as how to decipher what's on it to prevent overeating and potential weight gain. For even more on everything food labels, check out the latest edition of my book, "Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table."

1. Notice – but don't only notice – the calories.

The new nutrition label will list calories, serving size and servings per container in a bigger, bolder font. According to the FDA, the goal of this change is to make it easier and faster for consumers to glance at the package while grocery shopping and to determine whether or not to throw these foods in their carts. The FDA knows that if you're on a weight-loss journey, it's important to keep your eye on calories since, at the most basic level, eating less of them can lead to weight loss.

But counting calories alone won't guarantee that pounds will pour off and, for some people, calorie counting without understanding their own eating behaviors could be counterproductive. So just because calories are the easiest number to see on the new label, they shouldn't be the only thing you consider when shopping for foods that suit your weight-loss goals. Eating healthfully is also about the quality of calories, so don't pass up the other numbers or ingredients on that panel, even though they're in smaller fonts.

2. Don't confuse serving size with portion size.

Do you ever actually eat only half a cup of ice cream when you dig into a pint? Or just eat one-seventh of a bag of chips when the bag holds seven servings? Most people don't – and the FDA knows it. That's why serving sizes on the new label will reflect how much people actually consume, not how much they should consume. For example, the current serving size of ice cream is a half-cup, but on the new label, it will be 2/3 cup. A muffin formerly containing two servings will now be labeled as one serving. And, a 19-ounce container of soup that previously listed the package as containing 1.5 servings will now be considered a single serving. Again, the goal is to list portions in a more realistic quantity, but that doesn't mean you're supposed to be eating the serving size listed. 

While the "right" portion size will be different for everyone based on factors like how active they are and their weight loss goals – and unfortunately, the updated label will not include a dietitian nutritionist to help consumers figure out what's right for them – most folks can benefit from these portion size tricks:

  • One serving of meat looks like the size of a bar of soap.
  • One serving of cooked pasta is about the size of your fist.
  • One serving of butter is about the size of the tip of your thumb.
  • One serving of nut butter is about the size of a ping-pong ball.
  • One serving of cheese is the size of dice.

3. Usethe per package info to reason yourself out of a binge.

Larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting (but typically aren't) will now be labeled with a dual-column format that includes both "per serving" and "per package." That means that if you do eat the entire package, you'll be able to see exactly what you consumed without pulling out your calculator. Those numbers will be a real wake-up call for those who down a whole 20-ounce soda (240 calories) and full bag of chips (840 calories for 7 ounces) while bingeing on a favorite Netflix series. Packages that are clearly larger than most people would eat in one serving (a.k.a one that has more than three servings), meanwhile, are not required to have a dual column.

4. Embrace the new added sugars label.

The change that has registered dietitian nutritionists bubbling with excitement is that added sugars will be now be noted on the label. "Added sugars" are (yep, you guessed it), sugars that are added into a product by the manufacturer – not the naturally-occurring sugars in healthy foods like the fructose in fruit and the lactose in yogurt. Before, all "sugar" appeared to be created equal. Now, the FDA is requiring that food manufacturers include added sugar in both grams and percent daily values. You may also notice that foods like honey, maple syrup and cranberry products that meet the FDA definition of added sugar but are still pure products (as opposed to those containing extra table sugar) may contain a cross-like symbol on the label and statement on the back detailing exactly what "added sugars" means.

These changes are a big deal considering that research in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows that 74 percent of packaged foods sold in grocery stores contain added sugars. But before, food manufacturers were able to disguise "sugar" behind more than 60 names not spelled s-u-g-a-r on their ingredient labels such as "sucrose," "high-fructose corn syrup," "agave nectar" and "organic cane juice." Now, the hope is that the info will encourage consumers to choose foods low in added sugars without demonizing foods with naturally-occurring sugars. After all, an excessive amount of added sugar can lead to weight gain, blood sugar surges and crashes, as well as obesity-related medical issues such as insulin resistance and diabetes. 

If you don't know how much added sugar you should actually be getting, here's a cheat sheet: The U. S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you get no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars. If you're eating 2,000 calories per day, that works out to 200 calories or 50 grams of added sugar. (FYI: Every gram of sugar contains 4 calories.)

5. Know which fats to avoid.

Praise avocados, salmon and nuts – we're finally getting over our fat phobia. Over the last 20 years, we've learned that it's not just the total amount of fat that matters for health and weight loss, but the kind of fat that's included. While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in foods like almonds are healthy, for example, saturated fats and trans fats found in some highly-processed foods should be limited or avoided. That's why the new label will no longer include calories from fat, but it will list "total fat," "saturated fat" and "trans fat." Aim for foods with little to no saturated and no trans fats.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

Gallery: 9 misleading food labels you should avoid (courtesy Prevention)

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