How to Read Nutrition Labels for Low-Glycemic Shopping

9 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Choosing Low-Glycemic Foods

Even though you can't find a food's glycemic index or load on its packaging, the ever-present nutrition facts label is a valuable tool for finding the best low-glycemic choices, as well as the best foods for weight loss. Knowing what to look for on the label can make life easier for you as you navigate the grocery store aisles.

Examining the nutrition facts label

Following a low-glycemic diet for weight loss means you must look at the whole picture of the foods you eat. Determining that a particular food is low-glycemic is only half of the equation. You also need to make sure that food is both healthy and low in calories. The nutrition facts label gives you all the info you need to know to make an informed choice.

Following are the basics on what a standard nutrition facts label in the United States covers:

  • Portion size: How many portions are in the package. Portion size is one of the most important things to look at first because it means the rest of the information you find on the label is based on that specific portion size. So if the package says there are two servings and the calorie level is 100, then you'll end up with 200 calories if you eat the whole package.

  • Calories: The amount of energy in one serving. Shoot for lower calorie levels when choosing your foods and be willing to compare different products to find the perfect one. If you're looking at entire entrees, follow these guidelines:

    • Women should consume 400 to 500 calories per meal.

    • Men should consume 500 to 700 calories per meal.

    If your entree is less than the top number in the recommended calorie range, that's okay.

  • Total fat: One of the three sources of calories for the body. Consuming a moderate amount of fats is important for your overall health. A gram of fat has more calories than a gram of carbohydrate or protein, causing your calorie level to add up quickly whenever you consume fats. Try to get no more than 30 percent of your calories from fat per day.

    An easy way to determine the amount of fat you're consuming without breaking out the calculator is to look for 3 grams of fat per 100 calories.

  • Saturated fat: A subgroup of total fat that's considered unhealthy. Increased saturated fats in the diet are linked with heart disease and certain types of cancer. Try to get no more than 10 percent of your daily fat intake from saturated fats.

    A good rule of thumb is to only consume 1 gram of saturated fats per 100 calories.

  • Trans fat: A man-made fat that's linked with heart disease. Do your best to purchase products without trans fats. If they aren't listed on the label, go to the ingredients list and look for the terms hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil; these terms are another way of saying a food has trans fats.

    You may notice that the label says 0 trans fats, yet you still see hydrogenated oils listed among the ingredients. That means the food is made with trans fats, but for that portion size the amount of trans fats adds up to less than 0.5 grams. If you use more than the listed portion size, that minimal amount of trans fats will add up.

  • Fiber: The indigestible portion of a plant that provides roughage. The more the better! Fiber helps control your blood sugar and helps you feel full for a longer period of time. It provides denseness to foods and has no calories. Shoot for 3 grams of fiber or more per serving.

  • Sodium: A flavor-enhancing preservative. Sodium can cause your body to retain fluid, making you feel heavy and bloated. Scientific research shows that it may even stimulate your appetite. Choose lower-sodium items, and limit your sodium intake to 240 milligrams per serving.

    Staying at or below 240 milligrams of sodium per serving tends to be difficult when you're dealing with packaged and canned foods because they often use sodium as a preservative. Do the best you can by finding the lowest sodium content available.

Using the ingredients list

Although nutrition facts labels include data on total carbohydrates and sugars, that doesn't give you much to go on as far as glycemic load. To determine that, you really need to know what the food is made up of. For instance, if you find whole-grain bread, you need to know what grain was used to make it — wheat, oats, or millet. Wheat and oats are fairly low-glycemic, but millet can be medium- to high-glycemic. Fortunately a food's ingredients list can give you a good idea whether you're buying a product that uses low-glycemic foods. Ingredients are listed from highest content to lowest. So the first ingredient makes up most of that food, and the last ingredient makes up the least amount.

Unless a product is tested for its glycemic index, you can only make your best-educated choice about it. If you know, for example, that most tested whole-wheat breads are low-glycemic, then you can get an idea for other products made of the same ingredients.

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