This post was originally shared April 2014. Text and graphics have been updated.
When I'm at the grocery store, I like to pay attention to other people who are there shopping. Not necessarily what they're buying - I'm curious about how they're shopping.
One thing I notice is someone standing in front of a couple different food choices, brows furrowed, staring at the nutrition facts, presumably trying to decide what the healthiest choice is before making a purchase. The last time I went shopping, I literally saw someone put one box of cereal in his cart, take it out and put another in, then switch it out again after staring at the nutrition facts for a good 2 minutes.
Guys, I honestly can't remember the last time I looked at the nutrition facts of a food. With a few exceptions, like some medical conditions that need strict nutritional management, you don't need to either. We eat food, not nutrients!
Even before I transitioned to practicing intuitive eating with my clients, I still didn't teach much label reading with my patients, although I did get a little overly focused on ingredients in my "clean eating" days. That's because even if you're trying to make a decision about food rooted in nutrition/health, the label really doesn't tell you much.
Using the nutrition facts to make decisions about food leads to both unnecessarily restricting perfectly nutritious foods, and overeating foods that may not be quite so nutritious. One example that comes to mind is a lot of the clients I've worked with for diabetes, who often avoid nutritious, fiber-rich sources of carbohydrate, like things that have beans in them, and eat large quantities of sugar free or low carb snack foods, like pork rinds or sugar free candies.
Still stuck on reading the nutrition facts? Here's some facts on why the numbers don't really matter:
Calories // Calories are just a unit of energy. I'll say it louder for the people in the back, CALORIES ARE JUST A UNIT OF ENERGY. So when you think about calories as energy, the whole idea of eating as few as possible doesn't make as much sense. Because getting adequate energy is not a bad thing, it's something we need in order to do all the things we want to do each day.
Keep in mind that calories come from protein, fat, and carbohydrate - the three macronutrients. Because eating protein, fat and carbohydrate signals to our brain to turn off hunger signals (aka satiety), foods that are more dense in protein, fat and carbs tend to be more satisfying. Think of those 100-calorie snack packs, which yes, are low in calories, but I could eat an entire box of them and still be hungry!
If you're worried about how much you're eating, I think a healthier, and more effective way to ensure you're fueling yourself adequately, is paying attention to hunger and fullness levels, and eating regularly throughout the day.
Fat // Instead of fat, think satisfaction factor. Fat is filling, so don't be afraid if you see a higher number there. Think about fat free yogurt, which not only tastes icky, but isn't super satiating. If you're looking for something that is supposed to have fat in it (i.e. ice cream, salad dressing, mayonnaise) and that's been taken out, that doesn't necessarily make a food more nutritious. Usually it's been replaced with sugar or an additive (which isn't necessarily harmful, but neither is fat, and fat actually tastes good).
Cholesterol // Thankfully the national nutrition guidelines dropped their super outdated recommended limit on cholesterol intake. Dietary cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol except in a very small percentage of cholesterol-sensitive people, and even they would be better off just focusing in on eating more plants and less animals, rather than getting wrapped up in numbers.
Carbohydrate // Again, carbohydrate is just another source of fuel, not something to avoid. In fact, carbohydrate is the main source of fuel our body likes to use, and most people feel best eating some carbohydrate every 3-4ish hours, and sometimes more frequently if they're pretty active or a young, growing person.
The only time carbohydrate really becomes a problem is if you're only eating carbohydrate for a meal (i.e. just cereal for breakfast or just pasta for dinner). The carbohydrate isn't so much an issue as is the lack of protein and fat. Instead of getting caught up in numbers, just try to get some fat, protein, carbs and produce at most meals.
Also, from a health perspective, reading grams of carbohydrate on a label doesn't tell you where the carbohydrate comes from. Equal portions of a whole grain food vs it's refined grain counterpart will have essentially the same number of carbohydrates, but the whole grain has much more fiber and nutrients.
Protein // Y'all, I promise you're getting enough. The average American is getting double the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for protein. That's not to say you need to cut back either - the RDA is super arbitrary, and there's always controversy among the science folks about it. It just means (sounding like a broken record here) don't freak out about the number. Just get a little protein, from plants or an animal, at most meals, AND YOU'LL BE FINE!
Fiber // Does the food contain fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and/or seeds? Cool, then it contains fiber. Shoving more fiber into something doesn't necessarily make it better for you, unless you just really enjoy farting (See: Fart Bars - I mean, Fiber One bars).
Sugar // If you want a cookie, just eat the cookie you want, not the cookie with the lowest sugar content. At the end of the day, if you're eating a cookie because it's lower in sugar and not because it's tasty, you'll probably eat a lot more sugar in the long run trying to get that satisfaction that was missing.
Now, if you're someone who feels like you have a pretty solid relationship with food and aren't going to be triggered by numbers, I don't think comparing added sugar on snack foods (I'm thinking flavored yogurts or granola bars) is the worst idea. There's no need to be a sugar-phobe - as long as you're eating a wide variety of foods, cooking at home semi-regularly, then it's unlikely you're overdoing it.
At the end of the day, obsessively reading the nutrition facts distracts from the big picture things that matter. Are you fueling your body regularly throughout the day? Are you choosing more whole foods? Are you eating plenty of plants? Nutrition isn't something that needs to be micromanaged. Trust me, as someone who went to school for 6 years studying nutrition, I would love to get all down in the weeds about nutrition science to show you how smart I am, but for you to simply live and take good care of your body, those details simply don't matter.