How to read food labels, make best nutrition choices

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We've all been there: You're watching your favorite show, munching on some chips and before you know it, your fingertips are touching the crumbs at the bottom of the bag.

"Wait, did I just eat an entire bag of chips?" You ask yourself.

Yes, you did. You also just ate half of your daily serving of calories in one sitting.

If you looked at the nutritional label before busting open the bag, you may have avoided that, which is why, in honor of National Nutrition Month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is encouraging eaters to slow down, enjoy food and take the time to read a nutrition label.

A hurtle for some is that a food product's nutrition label may not be universally understood, according to Registered Dietician Scott Finney, who is based in Bennington, Vt.

"Most consumers do not always have a clear understanding of what these numbers mean and how they relate to their daily nutrition needs," he said. "This creates risk for the interpretation of the numbers, so it is best the consumer have a basic idea of what the numbers mean before making any changes."

Finney and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggest you pay attention to the following things when first looking at a label: portion size, the number of servings per bag (only eat one serving) and the specific nutrients and the amount in that serving.

Labels are based on a 2,000-calorie diet and consumers should refer to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines to figure out what is the appropriate amount of nutrients to receive in one serving. The recommendations vary depending on gender, age, body size and activity level.

If the serving size of a food item is one cup and the entire package is consumed, then that counts for two or more servings and doubles the calories and nutrients. In order to avoid this common pitfall, Finney urges his clients to measure out three-fourths of a cup of cereal rather than pouring from the box into the bowl so that they can see the portion size. He added that consumers should get familiar with regular portion sizes. This way they can recognize an appropriate serving and avoid going overboard when at a restaurant that might serve two or three servings of pasta in one dish rather than one.

Some consumers see nutrition facts in a negative light rather than positively, said nutritionist Nicole Pritikin, who owns her own practice in Dorset, Vt.

"If [understanding nutrition] was looked at as more of 'you need this much energy to fuel your body correctly,' there would be a different approach," she said. "There's so much advice from the media. It's 'avoid trans fat one year and get more protein another year.' People don't really know what to eat and say, 'the heck with it' and 'the government will say it's bad for me anyway.'"

If you're not sure where to start, look to local markets, farms and cooperative extensions, such as the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass., when searching out healthy foods. These outlets offer quality nutrition and often have single and bulk grocery items, as well as cafe/eat-in meals. General Manager Daniel Esko said the market's most popular salad right now is a quinoa, cashew and cranberry dish because of its balance of protein, healthy fats and low carbohydrates.

It might be easier, Esko said, to savor food when it contains more complex flavors. For example, a hard-boiled egg, which is simple and nutritional, can be part of an on-the-go snack, but the salad is "more sophisticated."

It's important to encourage people to "savor food," according to Finney, so they can really pay attention to what they're putting into their bodies.

"We are a country of convenience, and demand immediate resolution to any of our daily needs," he said. "I jokingly address my children as being part of the 'donut generation' — eat the donut to satisfy our needs in the moment, brush the sugar off our clothes (or not), and then they are onto the next donut or need to satisfy. The tendency to satisfy needs quickly without thought can lead to poor nutrition choices."

Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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