How to read food labels to help you lose the weight around the middle

How to Read Food Labels for Midlife Health

Food labels and nutrition facts tables may not sound like the most exciting topic for a blog post. But it can be a great place, if not the only place, to look for hidden ingredients like sugar. It’s amazing what products sugar is in and if it’s listed in the first three ingredients, it’s basically a sweet/dessert/cake!

The purpose of the nutrition food label is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right? In theory this information allows us to make a more informed choice about our food. But, research suggests that while consumers are able to interpret nutrition facts when asked to, they rarely use this information to inform their purchases.

The Nutrition facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing. Food labels are like the ID card of a product. It shows the contents, composition and relative amounts of substances plus information about processing.

However, the way the information is presented can sometimes trip people up so here’s a four-step crash course in reading food labels so that you make sure you’re getting the most out of it.

Step 1: Serving Size

The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it's tricky.

All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.

Let’s use an example - plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.

Food labels

As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.

FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).

Step 2: % Adult’s Reference Intake

The % Reference Intake is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day. (This is listed as % Daily Value, or %DV, in the example above).

NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the % Reference Intake.

The % Reference Intake is a guideline, not a rigid rule.

You don’t need to add all of your % Reference Intake up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.

Step 3: Middle of the food label (e.g. Calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein)

Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.

Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g - 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).

Sodium is measured in mg. It's easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).

Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fibre, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30g of walnuts contain 3g of carbohydrates; that 3g are all fibre. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3g of fibre is 12% of your daily value for fibre.

Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30g) of walnuts contains 5g of protein.

Step 4: Colour coded food labels

Some nutritional food labels will also use a traffic light system of red, amber and green to denote whether the product is high, medium or low in total fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The amounts for the high and low values are as follows:

Total fat

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g

Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g

Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g


High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g

Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g


High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)

Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

How to use nutrition food labels to help you lose the weight around the middle

  • Check the ingredients list. They’re listed by order of weight so the main ingredients are first. If sugar is one of the first three ingredients then consider choosing something else.

**If you’re struggling to know what to eat while trying to cut sugar, join the FREE 5 day sugar free challenge**

  • Check for any allergens in bold in the ingredients list. Food intolerances can affect how well your gut processes your hormones – as discussed in this blog post.

  • Look at the serving size and compare that to how much you’re having. If needs be recalculate your calories, fat, carbs and protein based on you’re actual portion size.

  • Be aware that the % Reference Intake and the traffic light system are all based on average values and therefore might not be how much you actually need based on your activity level and eating patterns.

Content Disclaimer

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog. Midlife Menu Ltd disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this blog.