Written by Leigh Ettinger, MD, MS, Medical Advisor to Camp Shane

How to Read Nutrition Labels 

Don’t. Seriously, do not read nutrition labels.  Don’t count calories, carbs, fats, or whatever point system you are being sold.  If you are reading a nutrition label then you are already in the wrong part of the supermarket.  I’ll explain why below but if you are not interested in the math then just jump to the last paragraph for the summary message.

In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research published “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective.”  This lengthy report contained the wisdom of a panel of 21 experts in nutrition, cancer, obesity, epidemiology, biochemistry, statistics, and public health.  These authorities from 11 countries spent 4 years reviewing the medical literature to find the causes of diseases, including obesity.  Allow me to summarize their conclusion.  To maintain body weight a person’s intake during a meal, a day of eating, a week of eating, etc should average 125 calories per 100 grams.  If you wish to gain weight aim for higher calories per 100 grams.  If you wish to lose weight, try for lower.  100 grams is about the weight of a deck of cards.  Foods vary greatly in their caloric density.  Foods less than 125 calories per 100 grams are water, leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and starches.  Foods higher than 125 calories per 100 grams are, in increasing order: nuts, soy products, meats, cheese, sodas, fried foods, chocolate, and lastly, butter and vegetable oils (884 calories per 100 g!!!).  Take a look at your favorite foods and see where they fall.

That’s it.  If you wish to lose weight eat more of the low-calorie density list and avoid the high-calorie density list.  It is easy to fill up on those low-calorie density foods because they have, in general, high fiber and water content which make the stretch receptors in your gut signal your brain that you are full.  Fill up on those foods and you will lower the calorie density of your meal, your day of eating, and your week of eating, etc and without feeling hungry or deprived.

A side note.  There is an exception to this rule.  Foods like oatmeal, rice, and pasta appear to have very high-calorie density by their label BUT those numbers refer to how they are packaged and not how they are eaten.  To be eaten they are cooked in water and expand with water weight, which, of course, has no calories.  The calorie density can fall by up to 2/3rds with cooking.  So, those starches bulked up with water actually are actually weight-maintaining or weight loss foods!

Be careful with toppings and how your foods are prepared.  Hidden calories can drastically increase the calorie density of a meal.  Ever wonder how there are a billion people in Asian eating white rice all day long without gaining weight while us Americans are taught to avoid fattening rice?  Well, 100 grams of cooked white rice has just 130 calories (perfect! and down from 365 calories before cooking).  Just a tablespoon (13.5 g) of olive oil has 119 calories.  So, you can see how a splash of olive oil in the cooking rice can quickly increase the calories of your rice AND do so without increasing satiety.  The rice has expanded to the same bigger size as the water AND calorie-rich oil.  The bowl of rice could have nearly doubled from 130 to 249 calories but you don’t feel any fuller.   The people in Asia don’t add high-calorie oil!  But olive oil is advertised as ‘healthy fat!?!’  Sorry, but if you are carrying around excess body fat you have stored plenty of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ fat.  You don’t need to seek out ‘healthy fat’ anymore.

Now, here in the last paragraph I will explain the simple difference between foods that encourage weight loss and foods that will cause weight gain.  Weight loss foods look like they just came out of the ground or off of a tree.  They don’t have nutrition labels.  Foods with nutrition labels have been through a factory and therefore processed, which means fiber and water has been removed and salt, sugar, and/or oil have probably been added.  The calorie density has been increased above and beyond what a person needs.  Eating processed foods will raise your daily calorie intake and lead to storage of fat.  Eating foods without labels will reduce your daily calorie intake and lead to weight loss.