How to Read a Nutrition Label for Clean Eating

This week, MetPro Coach Amber Velasquez, RD, breaks down the nutrition label. She discusses serving sizes, calories, and carbohydrates with Coach Crystal. With this knowledge, you'll be able to shop confidently at the grocery store!

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I'm joined by MetPro Coach Amber Velasquez. We are discussing how to read a nutrition label. Amber, thank you so much for joining me.

Thanks for having me. I'm excited to educate everyone on how to read a food label.

Me too. Let's start with the basics. Why is it important to understand how to read a nutrition label?

The most important thing to look at on a food label is the serving size. It's important to make sure that you are not mindfully eating because, a lot of times, a package comes with multiple servings in one box or container.

Sometimes you get something like, “If you eat an M&M’s, that is your serving.” You have to be careful.

Being mindful of what that one serving size provides will help you from overeating. A lot of times, if you grab a bag of chips, you eat the whole bag but that was four servings worth. You have to quadruple the calorie and fat amount. That can add up over time.

That's super depressing because it is surprisingly easy to eat large portions of things that are not healthy for you, and they taste amazing. Chocolate is my downfall.

I can agree with that. I love some dark chocolate.

I swear. There is always room for ice cream. It goes down so easily, and there is nothing healthy in ice cream.

It's just a bunch of added sugar.

Besides serving sizes, are there any specific things that you should be looking for on a label?

Yes. Besides the serving size, I also like to start with the calories. Depending on what my goals are, if I'm looking for a low-calorie snack or a high-calorie meal, then that is one thing that I like to look at. For instance, a no-calorie food has 5 calories or less. Even though it says, “No calories,” it can still have up to 5 calories, which is minuscule.

Low-calorie food is anything under 40 calories. If you are following MetPro and have those free foods lists, all of those have under 40 calories. Those are all low-calorie options, and some are healthier than others. You still have to be mindful of what you are eating. A moderate calorie food is around 100 calories, and anything 400 calories or more is a high-calorie food. You want to keep that in mind also.

All the numbers that you are giving, are they per serving?

Yes. That is per serving. On the newer food label that came out, if you look on the right-hand side, it will also give you the total amount for the entire package.

That's what we need to be looking for because I know that MetPro has a significant free food list but let's be honest. How many of us are like, “I'm going to sit down and eat some broccoli while I watch TV?”

Unless I can dip it in some ranch, I'm not going to choose the broccoli, either.

How do you know how many fats, carbs or proteins are good for you in a given food whenever you are purchasing it?

I always like to start with the ingredient list and try to find things that have nothing but whole ingredients. I try to avoid all the added fillers, preservatives, and things like that. Even though some of those serve a good purpose in helping keep the food fresh for longer and not spoiling while it sits on the shelf. There are benefits but a lot of downfalls to that. I try to look for things that have whole ingredients like chicken breasts as the main ingredient, a vegetable or whole wheat, rather than white enriched flour. Those things make a difference because they are giving you macronutrients that are clean overall and not full of all this stuff that we don't need.

You can tell it is the main ingredient if it is one of the ones at the very beginning of the list.

They list the ingredients from the heaviest weight. If chicken is the main ingredient but you have sugar alcohol in the end, it's going to be at the bottom of that ingredient list. It is important to look at all of the ingredients to determine what's in the food.

Are all carbs, carbs? Should we be looking for something particular or anything else?

Not all carbs are just carbs. Carbs include sugars, starches, and fibers. They all have their own benefits and cons with that. It can include added sugars. On a food label, now that they have released the new guidelines, they include added sugars. That is in the form of table sugar. If you see 13 grams of added sugar on a label, would you go and mindlessly eat 13 grams of sugar?

No, not if I was paying attention. It is crazy. I'm glad they added that to the new labels because there are so many foods that they add sugars to that you would never guess. One of the ones that I talk about all the time is spaghetti sauce or salsa. Who knew there was sugar in that? You think tomatoes. That is the basic ingredient. It might be the heaviest by weight to your earlier point but they still add sugar in there. You got to find ones that don't have sugar. It can be a scavenger hunt at the grocery store.

That is where reading a food label makes a big difference because if you weren't looking at these food labels, think about how much added sugar you would be consuming daily. Another one of my favorites is Greek yogurt. I love Greek yogurt but if you look at the majority of the labels, they all have added sugar.

Is it Oikos? They don't have any. I like that brand because of that. Something that I have always struggled with, and MetPro has helped me with this, is that because you get used to those added sugars, some of those foods don't taste as good because you are used to having added sugar and everything. MetPro has helped me because, to your earlier point about eating whole foods and having things that are natural, now things taste better without all the added sugar but you have to get that out of your system before they start tasting good.

They say sugar is very addicting, and I 100% believe that because when you are used to having it, and you try and go cold turkey without it, you have withdrawals, get headaches, and have that craving. Slowly starting to decrease the amount of added sugars that you are having will ultimately lead to you feeling better overall. It is important to look at that section on a food label. I'm glad they added that.

How do you handle it? Let's say you are getting it for dinner. You got a pre-prepared meal because you are busy, etc. The serving size doesn't match the meal that you are looking for. What do you do?

In that case, I would figure out what exactly serving size I need for the meal that I'm going for. I would alter the macronutrients to start with. Let’s say I chose a food with 10 grams of protein but for the meal that I'm going for, I need 20 grams. I would double that serving size. You must be mindful that you are also doubling the carbs, the fat, and the sodium. It's all about the more whole foods you are choosing, the less of the sodium, trans fat, and saturated fats that you are getting in that. That is where whole foods come into play as well. You can double the serving size, and sometimes, it can still be beneficial depending on how much of that food you need.

That is a good point, particularly if you are a beginner, and we have a whole other episode about this that Megan went into great detail about how to do different recipes at different levels and how long you have been with MetPro. When you are first starting, that is another good reason to use simple ingredients and keep all your food separate. For instance, for dinner, having chicken and some broccoli.

If you have carbs in your meal like a sweet potato and measuring all those separately is going to be a lot easier than going to the store and looking for some frozen meal or some meal that is already prepared that has those same things in it. They are probably going to add butter. They are going to add a bunch of things that you wouldn't add at home. Now, it is much more difficult for you to control your portion sizes.

Along with that, too, those prepackaged meals like you go and get a lasagna in the frozen section. It doesn't say it provides 1 cup of ground beef in it. It has ground beef in the ingredients. You don't know how much cheese is in it. It lists it based on the weight of the item but it doesn't give you portion sizes of each food. That's why it's so much simpler, make your food at home and stick with simple ingredients. As you get more advanced, you can start incorporating more recipes.

What about fat types on the label? I have noticed this, and there are so many. It's confusing. You got fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. What does all this mean? What should we be looking for?

Trans fat is your worst enemy. That would be the most unhealthy. In food items, they can claim on the package that it is zero trans fat, even if it has up to half a gram. They can still sneak that in there. The guidelines are flexible for that. It's deceiving because if you are trying to avoid all trans fat, it says 0 grams, and if you are not fully understanding what you are looking for in the ingredients, then you are still consuming those trans fats.

As far as saturated fats, those are less healthy than your unsaturated fats but you still need some of them in your diet. You want to limit the frequency of eating those. Your saturated fats come from your animal sources like beef, pork, full-fat dairy, and even your tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil, which can be deceiving because there has been a fad where people have been using coconut oil to cook all of their food in.

You hear coconut oil everywhere these days, “Add coconut oil. Add coconut flakes.” How do you know how much is good?

With that, be mindful. You can use it occasionally but I wouldn't use it for every meal. Swap it out for some of your unsaturated fats like your avocado oil, olive oils, nuts, and seeds. Those all have healthier fats. Those also provide Omega-3s, which are essential for our bodies but we have to get them through food. Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s on their own. Things like salmon, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds are all great sources. You want to include those at least a couple of times a week to make sure that you are meeting your body's needs for omegas.

There are a lot of things that our bodies can't produce, which is why it's good to have a variety of foods, fruits, and vegetables. “Eat the rainbow,” as they say. What about the ingredient list? I know you touched on this earlier but is there anything else that we should be specifically looking out for on the ingredient list?

A lot of times, if it says, “There is no sugar.” They often include sugar alcohol. One of the most common is erythritol. That will be in the ingredients, and it will show that it includes sugar alcohols but those can often cause an upset GI system. It may lessen the calories but you may suffer the consequences as far as you may have gas, bloating, diarrhea, and an upset stomach.

Those aren't the most positive side effects that you want. Is it better to consume real sugar rather than sugar alcohol? In my opinion, I think so because it's more in its truest form. Erythritol is used in all sugar-free candies and desserts. That is one thing that you have to look at in the ingredients list because it's not always obvious.

You saw sugar-free and were like, “I can have as much of this as I want.” To your point, because it can cause GI distress, which can ruin the rest of your day if you are not careful.

In higher amounts, it can affect you for a couple of days. Be careful.

A long time ago, whenever sugar-free ice cream was going through a fad in the ‘90s, and I had some for the first time in my life, I was like, “I can have as much of this as I want.” Let's just say it wasn't a great night.

I can only imagine.

What else should people know when they are reading nutrition labels? What have we missed?

I like to cover the percent daily value. That is often confusing for people. If you notice, protein doesn't have that, and neither does trans fat, which is weird but that means it is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which nowadays hardly any Americans are eating 2,000 calories with nowadays’ diet culture. We are well under-eating that.

This is a just guideline. It's not a good reference point but if you are looking for something that has a good source or a lot of a certain nutrient, then you want to look for something that has 20% or more on that percent daily value. Your vitamin A, if it has 20%, that's a good source of vitamin A. If it has 5% or less, it's not a good source. If your goal is to get more vitamin A, that's not going to be the food that you choose for that reason.

If you are trying to get fiber and it says, “Added fiber,” but if it's only a couple of percentage points, it's there but it is not doing what you are looking for it to do.

You want it to be at least 20% or more if you are looking for that high-fiber food, and typically, anything with 3 to 4 grams is a good source.

You are saying that people don't eat 2,000 calories a day. When you say that, you mean they are probably eating closer to 1,200 or 1,400 unless they are eating a lot of fast food or high fat. They might be eating more than that. I was under-eating. I was probably eating maybe 1,000 calories when I first joined MetPro. That means every serving size needs to be cut in half.

If you are looking for a high percentage of that nutrient, then you are going to want to double that. The percent daily value is confusing for most people but in general, it's a good guide if you are looking for something like high fiber. The reason that protein doesn't have it is that the average amount of protein for each person is different. Everyone is individual when it comes to that.

The FDA does not have guidelines for protein. They don't say, “Amber, you should have this much.” That is fascinating because you would think that with all the other things that they give us daily percentages of, they would have protein down. You probably need to talk to either your MetPro coach, a nutritionist, or a dietician to figure out what is a good range of protein for you then.

It all depends on your activity level. If you are a marathon runner, it doesn't necessarily mean that you need additional protein but if you are in a sport of powerlifting or something like that, then you will need added protein. That is why they don't put the percentage because it varies so much for each person. It's not average.

That was a lot of good information. Is there anything else that we want to make sure people know that we might have missed?

I want to touch on sodium. Sodium is a big one because, according to the American Heart Association, 9 out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium each day. It is recommended that if you are healthy and don't have any issues with high blood pressure, your limit is 2,300 milligrams per day but the average American consumes around 3,400. It’s crazy that it has a big difference. That often leads to things like hypertension, high blood pressure, and whatnot. If you already have that, then they recommend that you only consume 1,500 milligrams per day.

Looking at food labels is important when it comes to that because a lot of your prepackaged foods are higher in sodium. For instance, if you look at a lasagna label, it probably has at least half your daily amount already in that one meal. If you go and have fast food later that day, you are well over your limit. If that becomes a habit, that is when it starts to affect your health overall. Be mindful of the sodium. That's one of the big takeaways from this.

If you are eating the MetPro diet where you are working with a coach or you are using the basic app, a lot of those whole foods are going to have no sodium or natural sodium in them. You are looking at almost the opposite end of the problem. You have to be careful if you are an athlete and working out a lot. That is another thing you want to talk to your coach about to make sure that you are getting an adequate amount of sodium, particularly if you do a lot of endurance sports or long workouts.

If you are sweating a lot, we want to make sure that we replete your sodium levels. That is why working with a coach, make sure you are letting them know all of your activities, how much you were sweating, and the environment that you are exercising in. If you live in a hot, humid climate, you probably need more electrolytes and sodium than someone who lives in Alaska, and they were exercising. Letting your coach know all of those things is super important to help make sure that you are not under-consuming the electrolytes.

Some of the minor things are vitamins and minerals. Some of them have daily value, and some it's not even included. You don't know exactly what you are getting but that's why it is important to eat a variety of food and try and focus on your whole cuts of meat, your fresh produce, and your whole grains. That way, you are getting in all of your macronutrients and micronutrients, all of the vitamins and minerals that aren't necessarily listed on the food label but they are essential for your body. Variety is key.

I want to add macronutrients. For people who don't know, that is looking at your fat, protein, and carbohydrates but the micronutrients, those are what you were talking about like the salt. That's your different vitamins and all the other things that are parts of the macronutrients. That's why they call them micro versus macro. I want to make sure because some people may not know what that is. Amber, that was incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Thanks for having me, Crystal, and I hope this helps in some way.

I'm sure it will. I bet a lot of people will get some use out of this. Readers, that is all for this episode. You can find all the MetPro method episodes anywhere. You can go to Please be sure to follow the show, rate, and review because that lets other people know what they can expect. You can learn more about MetPro at Until then. Remember, consistency is key.

Done with Dieting with MetPro

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