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Nutrition 101

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels

Understanding food labels can help you make wise choices―if you know what to look for. Here's a rundown of the most important elements.

By Mary Desmond Pinkowish
Shelf of foodFrances Janisch

Potassium
Getting enough of this mineral―4,700 milligrams a day for adults―may help prevent high blood pressure. Low potassium can lead to an irregular heartbeat.

Total Carbohydrate
This large category includes everything from whole grains (healthy carbs) to sugar and other refined carbs (unhealthy ones). It's most helpful to look at the sugar and fiber numbers.

Dietary Fiber
The average adult should eat between 21 and 35 grams of fiber daily, but most don't reach that level. When buying bread or cereal, look for a brand with 3 grams or more per serving. Some labels describe whether the fiber is soluble or insoluble. Both are important. Soluble fiber, found in oatmeal, barley, and dried beans, can help lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber, found in whole grains and fruit and vegetable skins, protects against bowel disorders and may help digestion.

Sugars
These simple carbohydrates include glucose, dextrose, fructose, and galactose, all of which provide little nutritional value. Sugar shows up in surprising places, like crackers, "healthy" cereals, and salad dressings. It's often added to foods that need a flavor boost (like low-fat products).

Protein
In general, .45 gram of protein daily per pound of body weight (that's 68 grams for a 150-pound person) is plenty of protein, even if you're breast-feeding or physically active. Most Americans get enough protein effortlessly (unless they're vegetarians). And it's rare for people eating a normal diet to get too much.

 
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