The Truth About Food Labels

VIDEO: What you should know before hitting the aisles.
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A hundred years ago, food was simple. People didn't worry about trans fats in their cheese crackers or artificial colors in their fruit snacks. They didn't have to -- they were eating real cheese and real fruit. And food companies used to focus more on making food than on enticing people to buy it. That's why supermarkets are so daunting today: It's easy to make a false move, even when you're trying to eat healthy.

But it's time for a turnaround. "The front of a food package is real estate owned by the manufacturer, whose goal is to sell you something," says Men's Health weight-loss advisor Dr. David Katz. Flip the package over to find the information you need on the one part that's well regulated by the FDA: the Nutrition Facts label. (That's not to say all packaged foods are bad though: for proof, add these 125 Best Supermarket Foods to your grocery list.)

Calories

A University of Minnesota study showed that 91 percent of shoppers often bypass the calorie count before buying an item. That's bad: If each meal exceeds your energy needs by just 170 calories, you can gain a pound a week.

Fat

Plenty of men still assume that if a food is low in fat, it's good for them and vice versa. Far from it, says Dr. Katz. A better approach: Seek out healthier omega-3 and monounsaturated fats to reap heart-health benefits.

Sodium

Some studies suggest that healthy men don't need to watch their sodium, but the more sodium a food has, the more processed it's likely to be. Rule of thumb: Don't buy foods with higher sodium counts than calories. (For more information about the planet's tastiest mineral, read The Truth about Salt.

Protein

An average active guy should take in at least 115 grams of protein a day, says Men's Health weight-loss coach Alan Aragon. Plus, protein-rich foods keep you full longer, so they may help prevent overeating.

Serving size

"Don't assume the amount listed is an accurate serving size for you," says Chris D'Adamo, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Maryland school of medicine. Assess how much you'll actually eat, and judge the impact accordingly, D'Adamo says.

Fiber

The USDA recommends 38 grams a day for men. To reach that, be sure to eat grain products that contain at least 2 grams of fiber per 100 calories.

Sugar

We consume about 10 percent more caloric sweeteners today than we did 30 years ago, the USDA reports. In that same period, adult obesity has doubled. Coincidence? Keep the sugars below 10 percent of total calories—that's 2 1/2 grams of sugar per 100 calories, says Dr. Katz.

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More from Men's Health:

The Perfect Day of Eating

25 Best Nutrition Secrets Ever!

5 Perfect Protein-Packed Gym Snacks

12 Foods Your Dentist Wouldn't Eat

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