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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Reading nutrition labels - the basics

In the effort to improve quality of life and longevity, we’re of the opinion that you don’t need to spend too much time on dietary specifics. Quality nutrition research is lacking, and other health domains (like exercise) seem to be capable of generating a larger impact. That being said, nutrition remains a key pillar of health, and reading nutrition labels is a fundamental skill for taking control of your own health. This can be an overwhelming task if you try to understand every single aspect, but simply knowing the basics can help you avoid critical nutrition errors. Here I’ll cover some of the key, can't-miss steps in my approach, saving most of the nuance for another time.


1. Sugar


In almost every instance, sugar is where I’ll start on a nutrition label. There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that sugar is so pervasive. Even things you wouldn’t consider sweet can be packed with sugar, so it’s always worth a glance no matter what the product is. The other reason sugar gets the first look is because there are few things more damaging. A high dose of sugar in an easily digestible form (liquid, no fiber, etc.) is one of the worst things you can possibly consume.


When looking at the sugar content of a product, I’m going to want to see added sugar at zero or very close to it. This is because added sugar doesn’t come bound by fiber or any beneficial nutrients, and is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. It can also have high concentrations of fructose, a form of sugar that can be particularly harmful. Natural sugar in and of itself is no different than added sugar, but the form it comes in can make a big difference. This is where a bit of the nuance comes in. If we’re talking about a whole fruit with fiber to delay sugar absorption, and beneficial micronutrients along for the ride, I’ll have a slightly higher threshold for sugar. Even then, I’ll want to limit consumption. Something like fruit juice, which has a ton of natural sugar but no fiber to delay absorption, I’ll usually avoid entirely. While I think flexibility is important and I’ll make occasional exceptions, my general goal with sugar is to stay under 20 grams for the day. Even within this 20 gram allotment, I’d much prefer to be getting my sugar from a source like berries rather than added sugar in a packaged food.


2. Protein


Whereas we’re almost always looking for sugar to be a low number, we’re generally looking for protein to be a high number. There’s a bit more flexibility with protein, however, because you can have some very healthy foods (think avocados) that have hardly any protein. So while it’s not essential for every single item to have a lot of protein, we do want to ensure that we’re getting close to one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. It’s also important that the protein you’re consuming is spread out into appropriate chunks throughout the day. There’s good evidence that it’s not as effective to eat 150 grams of protein in one sitting or to consume 10 grams of protein every hour throughout the day. If I had to make an informed guess, it seems that 20-60 grams of protein at once is the sweet spot.


3. Fats and cholesterol


This is where things start to get complicated, because fats and cholesterol are neither inherently good nor bad — there’s lots of complexity within this category and many varying opinions. For the purposes of this post intended to cover the basics, there are just a few key takeaways. Firstly, you want to avoid trans fat entirely. Despite these fats being essentially banned in the U.S. in 2020, you still may come across small amounts, in processed foods especially. Aside from this, I don’t feel there are any serious red flags in the fats category. As we’ve spoken about before, increased dietary cholesterol does not lead to elevated blood cholesterol, and thus you should not be scared out of eating eggs, one of the most nutritious foods available. When it comes to saturated vs. unsaturated fats, you’ll find that many healthier foods (olive oil, avocados, etc.) have more unsaturated fats. This is generally a good sign, but I will say that saturated fats do not appear to be the villain they have often been made out to be. As we’ll talk about with carbohydrates in the next category, it’s really the source and quality of these fats that makes all the difference.


4. Carbohydrates and fiber


I’m not as strict on carbohydrates as some people, but I do try to limit them somewhat. Even more important to me is the quality of the carbohydrates I’m eating, and this can be difficult to judge from the nutrition label (hence the placement down at #4 on this list). I’m generally not too concerned with carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, although it’s possible to go overboard. The main thing you want to limit (or even avoid entirely) is refined carbohydrates. Things like white rice, white bread, and other highly processed carbohydrates are stripped of nutrients and fiber, making them essentially sugar in hiding. You can’t necessarily tell this from the nutrition label alone, although a high carb food with no fiber is certainly a red flag you can pick up on.


5. Sodium


This is an area where I’ve actually become less strict than I formerly was. It’s still important to take a look at sodium on a nutrition label, but its importance is higher for those with concerns about high blood pressure or those with some level of kidney dysfunction. In these people, it’s probably a good idea to take the daily value listed on the label literally, and to not exceed more than 100% of the recommended daily sodium intake. For the rest of us that are fortunate enough to be free from these concerns, it’s okay (and some would argue even better) to exceed the daily recommended value a bit. Nevertheless, I’ve noted that sodium can sometimes be a proxy for the quality of the food. You should always be a bit suspicious if a single serving of a food has more than 30% of the recommended daily sodium amount. It doesn’t mean you absolutely must avoid it, but it can be a hint that something is highly processed and you might want to think twice before consuming.


6. Ingredients


The last step I’ll touch on here really is more advanced, and doesn’t belong in a post about the basics. That being said, even people with no nutritional science background can sometimes identify a scary-looking ingredients list from a benign one. To start, all I would say is that you should take a brief glance at the ingredients list and judge it for yourself. Take pasta sauce for example. Even without training, one can appreciate that an item with five natural ingredients (tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onion, oregano) is probably healthier than an item with thirty ingredients, the majority of which are chemicals you’ve never heard of.


By adapting even a few of these six steps for reading nutrition labels, you’ll be a much more competent shopper and will be able to avoid the foods that commonly get in the way of people’s health and longevity goals. These are just the basics, and we’ll revisit this topic in the future, but know that the majority of the benefit actually comes from this first step — making the transition from ignoring nutrition labels entirely to scrutinizing them in a couple key areas.





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