How I taught my mom to read nutrition Label.

Some of you might know my mom got diagnosed with type 2 diabetes end of last year. I panicked initially as there are so many things she needs to pay attention to now and so many changes she has to make. How can I get all the knowledge and information to her in a short period of time if not instantly?

After calming down, I wrote this easy-to-read guide for the woman who taught me how to use spoons and chopsticks. According to her, my degree in food science paid off. It’s not written in the most prestigious scientific language as it’s for people without formal food science training, aka my mom. I’m now sharing this with all of you and hopefully it will be useful to you too.

1. Serving size

The first and biggest “trick” you need to pay attention to. For most people, the most confusing ones are ice cream and cereal.

1 serving of ice cream is ½ cup. You know how small it is if you bake. If not, the picture on the left is about 3 servings (depends on how packed it is). 1 serving of cereal is either ¾ cup or 1 cup. To be honest, I have nibbled on more than ¾ cup of cereal before (and regretted it). So really pay attention how much do you actually eat every time you have certain kind of food.  (Let me know if you actually eat only ½ cup of ice cream every time, you are my new self-control hero!)

Do the math on all the nutrients if you have more than 1 servings every time to get an accurate number. Everything below is pointless if you don’t pay attention to serving size.

2. Calories

    I’m not a big fan of counting calorie for mainly two reasons. One, there’s no way you can calculate it accurately and we constantly under calculate. Two, where the calories come from matters way more than the numbers. But it is a good idea to have a concept of it. A snack with about 200 kcal is a good choice to keep you fueled for about 2 hours.

3. Fats

    People have love and hate relationship with fats. When you remove fat from food, you need to add something back to bulk it up. Most time, it’s starch or other carbs (especially in baking). Let’s not even get into how much more “processed” your food needs to be to make up the function fat used to provide.

    Research from recent years have advocated the difference between good and bad fats. Salmon, avocado, nuts and olive oil have more omega-3, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are good for your heart and brain. Just keep portion control in mind as fat should be 20-35% of your daily calorie intake, which means lower than 80 grams.

4. Carbs

Oh carbs! Anything with structure like Cm(H2O)n can be called carbohydrate, that includes sugar, fiber, starch, etc. Not all carbs are created equal so you can’t just read the number in the column! I think “net carb” (Net carb= total carb-fiber-sugar alcohol) is a more accurate way to determine whether a food is too “carb loaded” or not. It striped off the parts you cannot digest, which means they do not contribute calorie or fluctuate your blood sugar level.

Refined carbohydrate is the one you want to watch out for. They do not existed in the natural world and are proceed to remove the “impurity”(fiber, vitamin, etc) to get the “pure” product like white flour, refined sugar, corn starch. They are easy to digest and will raise your blood sugar rapidly. So please watch out for that and limit intake. The new nutrition label will have “added sugar” column (Hooray to that!) so it will be easier for consumers. But before the mandatory change in two years, you still need to read it carefully.

5. Fiber

Yes, it is a carbohydrate but it’s the “good carb” you want to get more of. Daily recommended amount is 25g for women and 38g for men.

Paying attention to get more dried beans, nuts, vegetable, fruits, whole grain and fiber fortified food can help you get all the benefit fiber provides.

Fiber has proven function of promoting gut health and bowel function. It also acts like a bulking agent that help you feeling full for longer without extra calorie. Great for weight control! There are researches being conducted right now on how it will affect our mood, blood pressure and other bodily functions. Can’t wait for those to be published!

6. Sugar

    Sugar can be disguised under different names and unfortunately there’s no regulation to prevent food companies from doing that. The common ones are: pure cane sugar, cane sugar syrup/crystal, raw sugar, glucose syrup (seriously???), anhydrous dextrose, evaporated cane juice, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, honey, corn sweetener, etc. I’m sure someone is coming up with more deceptive names every day. So you really need to pay attention to the ingredient list and the nutrition fact table to see how much sugar exactly is in your food. Please try try try to limit your sugar intake. It’s bad for your teeth, directly related to obesity, cause insulin resistance, damage liver function, not making you feel full and lead to addiction, just to name a few.

There are a lot more about nutrition label than this but this is a start to get my mom into the habit of reading it carefully and actually get the correct picture of it. Hope it’s helpful to you too!

Let me know if you have any suggestions or questions.


Melanie Gong