Did you go shopping with your mom as a kid and stroll the aisles with her? She picked up a snack and stared at the label, she hung her head, “too many calories”, “not low fat” and put the item back on the shelf.
What if she had a nutrition label worksheet for Intuitive Eaters to help guide her choices at the grocery store…instead of the latest diet guide or restrictive app? I bet things would have been a lot less restrictive for your whole family!
Instead of the guilt and shame for choosing certain foods, she could feel confident that she made an informed choice for herself, based on her own personal goals.
Intuitive Eating is about listening to your body, but we can’t deny that nutrition science is real and facts exist.
Labels are on foods to inform your choices. Labels can be helpful tools if you know what to look for, how to use them in a way that is informative, and not laden with shame.
I’m going to teach you how to use labels to your advantage, with an Intuitive Eating lens, so you can let go of the guilt. With these lessons, you’ll feel confident tossing foods into your shopping cart…even the “off-limit” foods you’ve skipped in the past!
Let’s work through what your nutrition label worksheet would look like.
goal setting for your nutrition label worksheet
Do you ever pick up a box of snacks at the grocery store and automatically think, “OMG, this food is so bad”? Your chest tightens and you feel guilt before you’ve even gotten the snack home. Never mind when you actually find yourself grazing on it after dinner…
First things first – The nutrition label works for you. You don’t work for the label. You’re actually allowed to ignore it all together, and just listen to your body.
If you do choose to look at nutrition facts – remember, it’s just a label with neutral information on it. Only you can “assign” meanings to the numbers…which can feel pretty overwhelming if you focus on these numbers a lot.
Here’s what I’d like for you to know: no one food can make or break your diet. I’m a Registered Dietitian, and when you work with me, I help you see individual foods and meals as part of the bigger picture. I truly believe there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” foods. All foods fit, and, you are capable of making choices for yourself when you are empowered with the skills to be an informed Intuitive Eater.
Again: your intake of nutrients over time is what shapes your overall nutrition status, not what you had for lunch on Tuesday.
This blog can’t give you the full training I give my clients, because nutrition really needs to be tailored to individuals. But it will give you a firm starting point.
There are certainly questions to ask yourself to prevent guilt and judgment when you look at a food label. I can guide you through that process.
First, consider your goals. Having a goal will help guide how you interpret the food at hand. Without a goal, you aren’t going to know the parts of the nutrition label that are relevant (or not) to you.
Some common goals with Intuitive Eating are:
- to prevent binges
- to feel calm and connected to your body
Are any of these important to you?
Other goals may be medical related, like:
- managing blood sugars
- managing IBS symptoms
- Reducing cholesterol
Or maybe it’s more experiential – you might have a goal to:
- choose food that provides “staying power” so that you’re not feeling hungry again about 17 minutes after you took your last bite of lunch!
Or your goal could be as simple as eating food in a way that feels guilt-free after a lifetime of restriction and guilt, in which case, maybe you don’t want to look at the label at all, and instead focus on your body cues.
Sometimes we can learn how a food is working for you by how it makes you feel – never mind what the label says. If you’ve dieted a long time, it may take some practice tuning into your feelings and listening to your body sensations, and that’s OK. Usually with the right support, your ability to eat in a way that makes you feel energized and well gets stronger with time.
If you aren’t sure what your goals are in the first place, it can be helpful to receive counseling from a registered dietitian who can help clarify things with you.
Food is more than one nutrient so interpreting foods can seem complex.
The nutrients to focus on will depend on your personal goals. So, consider before putting anything in this blog into practice: what is your current nutrition goal?
Not all information needs to be relevant to you. And you’re allowed to ignore some nutrition in favor of other facts, depending on your needs! Challenge yourself to choose a goal that reflects how you hope to feel in your body, or, your health goals beyond just “losing weight”! (Because like we’ve talked about before – weight isn’t really a great measure of your health, and eating solely for weight loss tends to backfire!)
Here are some common things to look at on the nutrition label, depending on your goals.
The benefits of fiber have been well established but we also know most of us are not eating as much as is recommended (1).
Fiber intake has been linked to healthy gut bacteria, improved digestive health, metabolic health, cardiovascular health, and prevention of some cancers (2).
If you have any of those health concerns, increasing your fiber intake may be a reasonable goal for you.
Pro tip: When you look at a label, anything with 3 grams or more per serving would be considered a good source of fiber.
For bread products and cereals, seeing the words “whole grain” as the first ingredient is a good bet that fiber is present. This is the grain’s most wholesome form.
You can’t be so certain about fiber if the bread is brown or just has “wheat” on the ingredient list as they may have stripped the grain of its good, high-fiber parts. Checking the label can confirm the fiber is actually present!
Whole grains aren’t the only way to get fiber. Fiber is also present in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans. We wouldn’t expect Fiber in some foods, so don’t feel bad if you see 0 grams on foods like cheese!
When the high-fiber parts have been taken away from the grain, or Fiber isn’t naturally occurring in the food, companies may add ingredients to up the Fiber content in their product to market them as high-fiber foods. You may see inulin or chicory root on the ingredient list in this case.
My one note for you as you add Fiber is this. Don’t get too much of a good thing!
Eating too much of these ingredients or adding too much fiber too fast into your routine (especially without drinking more water) can leave you feeling gassy and bloated. Be mindful if you notice your body giving you this feedback and slow down your intake just a bit.
At the end of the day, increasing your fiber “more than before” can have huge benefits. You don’t need to be perfect or choose high fiber 100% of the time. Notice how Fiber makes you feel. Does it impact your fullness? Energy levels? The quality of your poops? This kind of “body “data” works with the nutrition label to help you learn what uniquely works for you.
Consider small ways to gently increase Fiber in your diet – and as you do, make sure you still enjoy the food you eat! Otherwise the benefits of adding Fiber won’t feel sustainable, and will only be temporary.
Next, let’s consider added sugar.
2. added sugar
First things first, sugar is not the enemy.
Like all nutrients, it has a specific role in the body. There are levels of sugar that tend to feel most balanced, and, everyone is different. Especially if you’ve struggled with inner self talk like “sugar is bad” – it may serve you to work on neutralizing your relationship with sugar *BEFORE* you begin label reading for it.
This way, you’re not inviting any binge-restrict extremes.
Okay – now let’s talk about Added Sugars, not to be confused with sugar that is naturally found in the food, “added sugar” is just that – sugar that has been added to the food.
Foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy have naturally occurring sugars and are not noted on this part of the label.
Unless you have diabetes, I would recommend simply focusing on the “added sugars”, which are more modifiable.
If you are otherwise healthy and don’t have any metabolic concerns such as PCOS, high triglycerides, or diabetes, added sugar is safe and fine for you to consume.
I would tell you to first and foremost see how certain products make your body feel. You may find that eating added sugar too often or in large quantities leaves you feeling sluggish.
Your body giving you this feedback is what helps you to adjust what, when, and how much added sugar best suits your body.
Pro tip: current recommendations are to keep your intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories (1). It’s okay if some days are higher, and others are lower! If your food of choice contains >10% of the Daily Value for added sugar – notice how it makes you feel and learn how much, how often, and when this choice best serves your body.
This is not a hard and fast rule or restriction, as different people have different tolerance and needs, but the Added Sugars can serve as a reference point to consider with your dietitian.
Lastly, you can consider how vitamins and minerals fit on your worksheet.
3. vitamins and minerals
The only vitamins and minerals required to be on a label (in the US) are vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron. Vitamins A and C are no longer required, which is a change made in 2016 (3).
Of course, some companies will go above and beyond and list additional vitamins and minerals, but they are not required to.
Skimming the vitamins and minerals on the label will give you a sense of how much nutrition you’re getting from the food. Also, check out the “% Daily Value (DV)” to assess how much “bang for your buck” you’re getting.
Pro tip: If a product has 10-19% of the daily value for a given nutrient, it is considered a good source. If it’s greater than 20%, that’s excellent (unless perhaps it’s sodium).
Speaking to a registered dietitian will help sort through what vitamins and minerals and in what amounts may be important to consider for you and your particular goals.
Your registered dietitian can also talk to you more about your personal needs and any medical conditions you have that may affect what foods you choose.
personalizing your nutrition label worksheet
If you have a health condition that requires you to modify the foods you eat, you may need to be mindful of particular ingredients or nutrients on a food label.
You may need to consider the type of fat in a food. For example, you may want to pay closer attention to unsaturated fat versus saturated fat if you have heart disease.
Total fat content may be an issue if you experience acid reflux.
Similarly, if you have trouble digesting certain nutrients such as lactose or fermentable carbohydrates, you want to be more aware of the ingredients in a food item.
Limiting foods high in sodium would be important if you had high blood pressure or kidney disease.
By no means is this level of awareness necessary for everyone, nor is this a complete list of ingredients you may be looking for!
It is best to get personalized advice from a registered dietitian on medical nutrition needs so you’re not sent into a spiral of unnecessary restriction.
My goal is for you to be aware of what’s in food without obsessing. This will help you make connections between what’s in the food and how the content of the food makes you feel.
This way you can adjust, and make improvements (if you want)!
The bottom line is that if the food makes you feel well AND you don’t have any medical reasons to do so, label reading may not be necessary or a priority for you – and that’s okay.
The ingredients and nutrients may not be the only thing you think of when you look at a label – often people are curious about calories and serving sizes.
calories, and servings sizes and portions, oh my!
Should you worry about calories? I wouldn’t.
Calories are listed for the arbitrary serving size on the label. Anyone who’s purchased a blue box of mac and cheese can tell you that. What the box calls a serving and what you actually feel satisfied by are often very different things!
A helpful way to use serving sizes is as a reference to understand the nutrition you are getting. A better way to guide “how much” is to eat by listening to your hunger/fullness cues.
A serving size on the box may say ½ cup. If you eat 2 cups and feel satisfied, then you know you’ve consumed 4x that nutrition on the label.
For many people knowing the calories disrupts your ability to be neutral around the food.
You might call a food “good” or “bad” and eat more or less based on the budget of calories you believe you have instead of tuning in to how your body feels eating those calories. This can lead to restriction for some, and “eff it mentality” for others. These extremes negatively impact your nutrition and relationship with food.
I teach you to think differently about calories so you can get the nutrition from a food without feeling exhausted by constantly trying to be “perfect” 24/7.
Especially because using the food label information in the wrong way can lead to the binge-restrict diet cycle (4). Being stuck in the binge-restrict cycle doesn’t mean you have a character flaw. I can help.
Relying too much on the label can be counterproductive. Did you know the FDA allows a 20% margin of error with calories from what is listed on the label (1). That’s a big deal!
So even if you are doing the work of measuring how big a serving you have, your calorie amounts may not even be right.
For this reason, I don’t advise tracking calorie levels on labels, though serving sizes may be helpful to create a unit of measure for the nutrition within the food … but not to dictate how much you get to eat!
how is wellness culture creeping in?
Let me ask you a question (or two): do you know how to pronounce ascorbic acid? How about methylenetetrahydrofolate?
If you had trouble with those, don’t despair. They are also known as vitamin C and folate and both are necessary nutrients for our bodies to thrive.
No offense, but I don’t think one’s phonetic skills should indicate how we determine if a food or nutrient is “healthy” or “safe”. Nutrients are chemicals and we eat them every day.
The movement to “eat clean” and avoid chemicals is rooted in wellness culture and often pushes you into a fearful relationship with food.
Erin from @foodsciencebabe has a degree in chemical engineering and works in the food industry. She sat down to chat for my podcast and debunked some of the “clean eating” marketing messages.
This way of thinking can progress to disordered eating like orthorexia. You get it in your head that you need to restrict this and that, instead of adding things to your routine.
Restrictive thinking is so normalized in wellness culture that you may not even realize how it has a hold on your food choices and your feelings around your food choices.
It certainly does NOT mean you are less. Listen to Lauren’s story in my “What is orthorexia?” podcast and how joining the No More Guilt community helped her along her journey of Intuitive Eating and healing her relationship with food.
So many of the messages from the wellness culture are based on fear and you don’t have to feel all the guilt and angst from grocery shopping!
are there any foods I should totally avoid?
Nope! Unless a food is tainted, poisoned, or moldy – all foods fit.
Nutrition is about your overall eating pattern. It’s not determined by one food item and isn’t about “eating clean” or “cheat days”.
Sometimes adjusting one or two foods in your routine can make all the difference and there’s no need to nit-pick every choice you make.
Many people find positive nutrition without much label reading at all.
But if you stare at the label and still feel confused and need help navigating them to reach your personal health goals, download my Nutrition Label Worksheet for Intuitive Eaters.
Sorting out all your personal goals along with your preferences for food preparation (especially with convenience foods to get through a busy week), culture, and health goals can take experimentation and time.
If you want an experienced dietitian to help guide you through this so you can feel more at ease at the grocery store, apply to work with me and start feeling confident making your food choices.