You’re at the store, browsing the snack aisle. Trying to decide what to buy for some movie night munchies, you decide to do a little comparison shopping of the nutrition of various brands of popcorn. You turn the package over and glance at the nutrition facts — what’s the first thing you look for?
If you’re anything like most Americans, you jump right to the calorie number — and you stop there.
When it comes down to it, you’re making a huge (and all too common) mistake. Nutrition labels are more than just a number labeling a food. Jennifer Glockner, nutritionist and author of Teddy Tries a Veggie nutrition e-book, advises, “Food labels are important tools that empower consumers to make smart choices.” This may seem like obvious advice, but if you’re looking at the calorie count and nothing else, you’re ignoring some of the most useful nutritional tools you’ve been given.
Based on your intuition, which snack is healthier: a fun size bag of M&M’s or a banana with peanut butter?
If you said the banana with peanut butter, you’re right. That snack has a good balance of natural sugars to keep you energized and healthy fats to sustain you until your next meal. The peanut butter even packs some protein!
But the M&M’s contain fewer calories: 73, as opposed to the banana with peanut butter’s 200.
So if calories don’t determine the health of eating certain foods, how can you use nutrition labels to make smart choices? It’s simple: Just look for the nutrients.
The macronutrients in particular (carbs, protein, and fat) are most crucial for keeping your body at its healthiest state. It is possible to eat enough, or even more than enough, calories and still be nutrient deficient. In fact, according to some studies, many people who are overweight are nutrient deficient. Why?
They aren’t paying attention to their macronutrients. Nutrient deficiency in the body is what makes you feel hungry, irritable, tired, dissatisfied… The list goes on. That hunger and dissatisfaction can lead to food binges and weight fluctuation.
Make sure your foods have a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. When you’re considering a meal, you want to have a good amount of all three.
According to nutritionist and registered dietitian Chloe McLeod, you should divide your calorie intake into 50 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent fats, and 25 percent proteins.
When you’re thinking about a snack, you want it to have a good amount of at least two macronutrients. A slice of toast with cheese, pretzels with hummus, and yogurt with nuts are all great examples that combine different types of nutrients.
Foods with high amounts of macronutrients often contain more calories, but are still healthier for the body than foods that contain the same or fewer calories without the same nutrients.
The other nutrients, such as the sugars, vitamins, and minerals, are important to look over, as well. In general, foods with lower sugar content and higher content of vitamins and minerals are the way to go.
However, some super-healthy foods — such as dried dates, for example — have tons of sugar. So are they still healthy?
Yes. This is another mistake you’re probably making: You might be caring more about limiting sugars, fats, sodium, etc., than you do about learning where those nutrients are coming from.
The sugar in dried dates comes from fruit. The fruit is a natural source of sugar, and much better for you than a food like a candy bar, even though the latter may have lower sugar content.
So how can you tell where the sugar is coming from? Like nutritionist Nichola Whitehead, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, told Business Insider: The most important thing to look for on a nutrition label is not the calories, but rather the ingredients.
Here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind when scouring over the ingredients list:
— If you have to scour over them, they probably aren’t great. No ingredients list should confuse you.
— Look for whole, real ingredients, foods you have heard of and understand.
— Watch out for added sugars, colorings, and preservatives.
Stop looking at the calories and ignoring everything else. Look for high nutrient content and a simple, appealing ingredient list. Loaded with chemicals and stripped of nutrients, those low-calorie crackers may not be the healthiest choice, after all! Instead, try some of our healthy snack ideas.