How To Read Nutrition Labels like a Dietitian

By Emily Holzer & Lisa Maguire

When trying to make important shifts in healthy eating, it can be difficult to tell exactly what is going into the food you buy, and even harder when the nutrition labels are filled with complex words and numbers that you may not understand. Misreading nutrition labels can be detrimental to your wellness plan. Here is some insight from HAC on how to read nutrition labels and use them to build a healthier, more balanced diet.

Serving Size

One of the first items listed at the top of any nutrition label is the suggested serving size. It is essential to consider serving size when calculating the nutritional intake advertised on the label. This is because the rest of the nutrition label’s value is calculated based on this number.

The Percent Daily Values and caloric intake listed on the nutrition label indicate the nutritional value of just one serving, rather than one package. Therefore, the nutritional value you account for should be calculated according to how many servings you consume. For example, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream pints each contain four servings, so each container includes four times the total nutritional intake listed on the package. It is important to check the serving size and remain aware of how much you are consuming when the label may be otherwise misleading.

One of the new measures the FDA has taken to help minimize confusion is to require manufacturers to base their calculations on the typical consumption rather than their recommendation. As an example, rather than listing a 20-ounce bottle of soda as 2.5 servings and the nutrition information for a single serving, the manufacturer now has to list the serving size as one bottle and the total nutrition information for the entire bottle:


Caloric Intake

Also at the top of your nutrition label (near the serving size) is the number of calories in a serving. Calorie consumption is important, but it does not entirely determine the healthiness of the item you are eating. As we will discuss later, there are high-calorie fats that are good for your body. By speaking with a registered dietitian, you can discuss the impact of calories on your desired fitness plan, and together you can determine a daily caloric intake that will help you meet your individualized wellness goals.

The FDA’s new label requires the calories per serving be enlarged and prominently displayed:


Percent Daily Values

The Percent Daily Values (or %DV) are another important element of a nutrition label to consider. You will see these listed next to almost every item on the nutrition label. These percentages are ordinarily calculated based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet and should be listed as such. The percentage listed next to each nutritional item is not the percentage of the food item that substance makes up, rather this number signifies what percent of a 2000 calorie-per-day diet this item fulfills.

The Percent Daily Values can be used when keeping track of your dietary consumption and when comparing food choices. When deciding between two comparable food items, check the serving size and the Percent Daily Values to see which is best for meeting your nutritional plan. The FDA suggests that a %DV of 5 or less is considered “low” and of 20 or more to be considered “high.” These numbers apply to both good and bad nutritional elements. So if you are trying to limit your carbohydrate intake, look for a nutritional label with %DV of 5 or less next to “Carbohydrates,” and if you are trying to get more fiber in, look for products listed with a %DV of 20 or more next to “Fiber.”

Food Label Nutrients to Limit

Written clearly near the top of a nutrition label is a list containing Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium. The FDA suggests limiting your intake of these substances for a healthy diet. Here, the FDA clearly states, “Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.” Typically, the smaller the number you see listed next to these items on your nutrition label, the better. According to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a high level of consumption of trans fats or saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

One positive nutritional element listed under “Carbohydrates” is “Dietary Fiber.” Fiber helps regulate your digestive system and keeps you feeling full. Your body does not digest fiber, so you do not need to calculate it into your total carbohydrate intake. When reading the nutrition label for carbohydrates, subtract the grams or the %DV of fiber from the total number of carbohydrates consumed per serving.

The Good Fats

Not all fat is bad for your health, and certain fats are even considered necessary for maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet. When you are reading a nutrition label, look out for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, sometimes referred to in conversation as “the good fats.” According to the Harvard Medical School, these are the fats your body needs to boost your energy, absorb important nutrients, help prevent heart disease and stroke, lower your blood pressure, and more. These are the fats found in foods such as salmon, avocado, and walnuts. Sometimes, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats aren’t listed – you can calculate the amount of good fat by subtracting saturated and trans fats from the total fat:



When considering the sugars contained within a packaging, you will not find a Percent Daily Value listed next to these items. This is because the FDA does not have a recommended daily sugar intake. While there is not a current FDA recommendation, the World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of daily caloric intake include sugar and further urges consumers to try to keep it at no more than 5% (25g or 6 teaspoons) daily.

While this may seem difficult, there are two different types of sugars to consider: naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars. The CDC cites that added sugars can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and suggests that a healthy diet is composed of less than 10% caloric intake via added sugar.

The primary list of added sugars to look out for includes brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose. If you are trying to limit your added sugar intake, look out for these items in the “Ingredients” section of the nutrition label.


Vitamin and Mineral Intake

Nutrition labels also include the vitamin and mineral values contained in a single serving size. These are important substances that your body needs, and that you want to be sure you are getting enough of. You can always consult a doctor or dietitian to see which vitamins and minerals you may need to optimize your diet. Research suggests that the right levels of vitamins and minerals can help promote healthy skin, bones, hair, muscles, brain health, nerve function, energy levels, blood pressure, and so much more.

There is often little need to worry if you are getting too many of these vitamins and minerals when pairing healthy food selections with a daily multivitamin. The National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements clarifies that the Recommended Dietary Allowance of daily vitamin and mineral intake is the lowest sufficient consumption needed to meet the ideal needs of healthy individuals. However, if you are concerned about your vitamin and mineral intake, you should speak with your doctor or nutritionist to ensure that you understand your individualized dietary needs and that you are getting the right amount of necessary vitamins and minerals.

Important Points to Consider

Always consult with your doctor when making significant shifts in your diet, especially if you are experiencing health concerns, taking new medications, nursing, or pregnant. HAC Enhance Magazine and the HAC Health Center are here with the insight you need to stay well. Get in touch today and to get started on your track to wellness.


Hockessin Athletic Club opened its doors on June 10 2007. Boasting over 100,000 sq. ft., a 5-pool aquatics complex, and over 200+ weekly group and aqua fitness classes, it is Delaware's premier fitness destination. 100 Fitness Way, Hockessin, DE ·

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