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LighterLife: Top 10 nutrition facts and a guide to food labelling

May 10, 2012 - Nutrition

If you’re trying to lead a lighter life but feeling confused about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, look no further! We’ve looked at various food labels and identified the important facts about the nutritional information found on the foods you buy when you shop.

So what do you know about what’s inside the food you’re eating?

Calories

We measure the amount of energy contained in an item of food in calories. You can find out more about calories in our piece on what is a calorie, and what calories to look out for in our forgotten calories blog.

Fat

There are two main types of fat found in food: saturated and unsaturated. Both contain the same amount of calories, but as part of a healthy diet we should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat, and instead eat foods that are rich in unsaturated fat. You may also notice trans fat on some food labels (don’t worry there’s more about these in a minute).

Saturated Fat

Sorry to use the phrase ‘average’, we all know there’s no such thing, so please just use this as a guide rather than a rule of thumb. The average man should eat no more than *30g of saturated fat a day and the average woman should eat no more than *20g of saturated fat a day. Here is a list of foods high in saturated fat.

*Please note, where we reference grams the quantities quoted are an average for a healthy person managing their weight.

Unsaturated Fat

Unsaturated fats are some of the good fats that can actually help to lower blood cholesterol. Unsaturated fat is found in: oily fish (salmon, fresh tuna and mackerel), avocados, nuts and seeds and sunflower and olive oils.

Trans Fat

Trans fat is a common name for certain unsaturated fats, rare in living nature, but can occur in processed foods. Like saturated fats they can raise cholesterol so it’s recommended that trans fats should make up no more than 2% of the energy (calories) we get from our diet, for adults this is *5g per day or less.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is essential for our bodies to work, however too much of it increases the risk of coronary heart disease and disease of the arteries. There is actually very little cholesterol found in food, instead what’s important is the type of fat in the food you choose, namely saturated fat because once inside the body, the liver turns this fat into cholesterol.

Sodium

The most common form of sodium is table salt, but it also occurs naturally in most foods. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, putting you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke. Dairy products, beets and celery are all naturally high in sodium, it is also added to many takeaway meals in the form of additives that are used as preservatives and flavour enhancers. A high level of sodium is more than *0.6g (1.5g of salt per 100g). A low level is *0.1g (0.3g of salt or less per 100g). Here is a list of foods that contain high levels of salt.

Total carbohydrates (fibre, starch and sugars)

Starch is our main source of carbohydrate and starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice and pasta are a good source of energy. Where you can choose wholegrain varieties are they are a good source of fibre. The daily recommended intake for men is *256g per day and 198g per day for women. Find out more about the types of starchy foods and their nutritional benefits.

Fibre

Fibre helps to keep our bowels healthy, and helps us to feel full, making it less likely we will want to eat too much.

Sugars

There are two main types of sugar, those that occur naturally i.e. fruit and milk and those added to foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and fizzy drinks (the added sugars are the ones to cut down on). A high level of sugar in any given food would be over *15g of total sugars per 100g, a low level would be 5g of total sugars or less per 100g.

Foods that have a lot of added sugar e.g. cakes and biscuits tend to contain lots of calories and often have few other nutrients. Sugary foods can also cause tooth decay.

Protein

Our bodies need protein for growth and repair, from hair to fingernails, protein is a major component of our cells. Health professionals suggest men should eat *55.5g protein a day, and women 45g. Good sources of protein are: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds. When you can, choose low-fat proteins such as poultry and fish to keep your heart healthy and your cholesterol low.

You could refer to protein as the ‘foundation’ vital for healthy muscles, organs, bones, skin, hormones and antibodies in every single cell of your body. Proteins are comprised of amino acids, of which there are 21 necessary for your body to function normally, nine of these are essential, and have to come from food because your body can’t make them.

Foods that contain a complete source of essential amino acids (EAA) are; meat, fish, eggs, cheese and other dairy products. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet you can find out more about getting the full range of EAA here.

Vitamins and Minerals

You should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. Therefore you shouldn’t need to take supplements. But if you have a restricted diet, such as a vegan diet, you may lack in certain nutrients and may require supplements in the long term (always consult with your GP). Find out more about vitamins and minerals.

Calcium

Calcium plays an important role in building stronger, denser bones and keeping bones strong and healthy. Good sources of calcium are cheese, yoghurt, dairy, milk, spinach, chard and rhubarb. Choose lower-fat dairy foods where you can as they are healthier choices i.e. semi-skimmed, and skimmed milks, reduced-fat hard cheeses (note: more than *20g of fat per 100g is high fat), low-fat spreads, plain yoghurt and low-fat fromage frais.

Iron

Iron is essential as it helps to transport oxygen around the body, keeps your energy levels up and aids digestion and nerve function.

You should be able to get all the iron you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. Good sources of iron are liver, meat, beans, nuts, dried fruit, dark-green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Men need about *8.7mg of iron per day women about 14.8mg.

Omega 3

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid needed to ensure a healthy nervous system and brain function. Good sources of omega 3 are fish and fish oils, or if you don’t eat fish it can also be found in foods such as rapeseed oil, flax seeds and walnuts, as well as fortified foods such as spreads and yoghurts.

There is no formal recommended daily allowance for omega 3 however The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat two servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, each week. If you’d like further guidance your GP should be able to help you decide which form of omega 3 may be best for you.

*Please note, where we reference grams the quantities quoted are an average for a healthy person managing their weight.

Visit the LighterLife Website to find out more about losing weight and Living a Lighter Life.

Useful resources
NHS Website
BBC Website
The American Heart Association