When it comes to eating for weight loss, the nutrition label is your secret weapon. Unfortunately, reading it can feel like we’re learning a foreign language at times.
“There’s so much information that’s packed into this little back panel that it’s easy to overlook some things or not fully understand what it’s trying to communicate,” says Elana Natker, MS, RD, owner of Sage Leaf Communications. New FDA nutrition label standards—like increasing the font size of calorie counts and suggesting the right portions with serving sizes—should help clear the confusion. But not all food manufacturers have incorporated the changes just yet.
In the meantime, we asked three dietitians to ID the top nutrition label mistakes that could be causing you to gain weight. Avoiding these common blunders could make all the difference in your weight loss journey. “Whenever you’re focused on weight loss, it’s always a good idea to know the facts, and your food label is really going to be your best way of knowing that,” says Leah Kaufman, MS, CDE, RD, owner of Leah Kaufman Nutrition.
1. You Only Read the Front of the Package
It’s easy to get seduced by food labels that read “organic,” “all-natural,” and “gluten-free,” but if you base your purchase choices on flashy claims and skip reading the nutrition label altogether, you miss out on valuable info (i.e. calories, ingredients and serving sizes). “Just because it’s made from organic ingredients doesn’t mean it’s less likely to make you gain weight,” says Keri Gans, RD, owner of Keri Gans Nutrition and author of The Small Change Diet.
2. You Ignore Serving Sizes
A big mistake people make when reading nutrition labels is not paying attention to serving sizes, Gans says. For example, if you drink an entire bottle of juice without looking at the label, you may not realize that there were actually two-and-a-half servings in the bottle and that what you thought was a 130-calorie snack was really 325.
Once you start measuring specific quantities, you might be surprised to learn that one “serving” is actually a lot smaller than you thought it was. Natker uses dry cereals as an example: One serving of cereal could be two-thirds of a cup, but “if you actually take out your measuring cup and measure it, you’d be pretty sad about what that means,” she says.
3. You Don’t Check All of the Ingredients
According to Natker, the ingredients on your nutrition label are listed in order of weight, so the first ingredient listed is the one in the greatest amount. However, many people only check the first three to five ingredients (if they read the list at all). “You don’t want to ignore the end of the ingredient list because this is where you’re going to find your added vitamins or the smaller weighted things,” Natker explains. Some of the ingredients you see at the end could be artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame.
What’s more, reading the ingredient list in its entirety will clue you in as to whether that “multi-grain” bread is truly multi-grain or if it’s mostly just enriched wheat flour. “Just because it says whole grain on the label, it doesn’t mean that this is a completely whole-grain food,” Natker says.
According to Gans, neglecting the ingredient list may not necessarily lead to weight gain, “but you might be consuming certain foods or ingredients that you weren’t aware that you were,” she says.
4. You Don’t Look for Added Sugars
It’s no secret that consuming too much sugar is bad for your overall health — to say nothing about maintaining a healthy weight. Eating foods high in added sugars can lead to a surplus in calories while offering nothing of value (i.e. satiety).
Many foods contain naturally-occurring sugars. Yogurt, for example, contains lactose, which is a natural form of sugar in dairy products. But added sugars creep into everything, from your salad dressing to your granola bar. Many yogurts—especially those with fruit—are chock-full of added sugars that offer no nutritional value. So if you really like having fruit in your yogurt, you’re better off adding it yourself. “Adding your own fruit can add natural sources of vitamins and minerals, as well as natural sources of fiber,” Kaufman says.
To keep your heart healthy — and your pants from getting too snug — the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men. You can find the amount of added sugars hidden beneath the total sugars amount on your nutrition label.
5. You Overlook Fiber
If you don’t pay attention to the fiber in the foods you’re tossing into your grocery cart, you’re hardly alone. In fact, roughly 92 percent of U.S. adults don’t eat the recommended amount of whole-grain, fiber-rich food sources, according to a study in Nutrition Research. This is a mistake. Not only does dietary fiber help keep your gut and heart-healthy, but it also boosts feelings of satiety and gives you energy. It’s also a great nutritional tool for weight loss or maintenance, according to a paper in the Journal of Nutrition.
The Mayo Clinic recommends 38 grams of fiber per day for men and 25 grams for women age 50 or older. According to Kaufman, two products might have the same amount of carbohydrates, but one may have more fiber than the other. If this is the case, she says, opt for the one with more fiber.
6. You Ignore Sodium Content
Truthfully, overlooking sodium content in food is more of an overall health issue—especially with regards to heart health—than a weight-loss issue. That said, eating too many high-sodium foods could lead to bloating, Gans says, “which could make that scale move.” You could also argue that the negative effects of consuming too much sodium (ex. high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke) could eventually lead to weight gain.
In any case, it’s always smart to pay attention to the sodium content of your foods. Like added sugars, sodium can sneak into a surprising variety of foods, making it even more important to check labels. The American Heart Association recommends no more 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for adults—but ideally no more than 1,500 mg.