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Deciphering food labels part 2: The fats

A food label
A food label
Courtesy of

Do you pay attention to food labels when shopping at the grocery store? If you are like most people, you either ignore them or don’t quite understand them. If so, you are missing out on an essential tool to help avoid chronic health issues, lose weight, and live a healthy life.

Our “Food Labels 101” series will empower you to make better choices at both the grocery store and when dining out. Large chain restaurants, for example, are required under the new health care reform law to prominently feature nutritional information for consumers. However, if you don’t understand how to decipher a label as well as the recommended daily maximum values of certain food items, all of this information doesn’t mean much.

Part one: Servings sizes and % of daily values

Calories from Fat
Healthy fats, such as those derived from olive oil, walnuts, and salmon, are essential for proper functioning and cushioning of the body’s organs and should be a component of all diets.

Conversely, saturated fats are unhealthy and have been linked to heart disease and high cholesterol. Ideally, they should be limited or eliminated from one’s diet.

Fats are denser than proteins or carbohydrates and contain twice as many calories per gram. A gram of fat contains 9 calories; whereas a gram of protein or carbohydrates contain only 4 calories.

Obviously, if your diet is comprised of a high amount of fat, even if it is a healthy fat, your caloric intake will be much higher. A general rule of thumb is to limit your caloric intake of fat to no more than 30% of daily calories, making sure they are mostly healthy fats.

Saturated Fats
The evil saturated fats! Linked to heart disease, clogged arteries (CAD), and high cholesterol, saturated fats are mainly derived from animal meats and dairy products. Minimize your intake of the following items as much as possible, especially if you already suffer from the above conditions:

The skin of poultry
Whole milk and whole milk products (ice cream & cheese)
Palm oil
Coconut oil**

** Although some health experts are touting the benefits of coconut oil, it is still one of the most saturated fats that exists. To date, there have been no clinical trials conducted to prove any benefits of coconut oil, simply anecdotal evidence.

% of Daily Cals                    1600 cal diet                          2000 cal diet
Saturated Fat <= 10%         18 grams/160 cal                  20 grams/180 cal
Total Fat <= 30%                 53 grams/477 cal                  65 grams/585 cal

What does that mean to you? One teaspoon is equal to 4 grams. If you are on a 1,600 calorie diet, you’ll want to limit your saturated fat to 4.5 teaspoons.

One tablespoon of butter, for example, contains 7 grams of saturated fat; have 2 tablespoons and you’ve almost reached your daily limit.

It’s quite difficult to estimate the amount of saturated fat that is contained in a steak; it’s therefore recommended to limit your consumption. When you treat yourself to a steak, simply limit saturated fat the rest of the day.

Jeff, a Chicago businessman, has had past issues with heart disease, and now he is more aware of his intake of saturated fat than ever.  "I find myself checking everything; it's amazing how much fat and sodium is in some of these prepared foods."

He now eats mainly fresh fruits and vegetables, with some chicken and fish; and luckily, his heart disease has been under control for several years.

Next: Food Labels Part 2 – Healthy fats and Trans fats


  • Amanda C. Strosahl 5 years ago

    Excellent information. Thank you.

  • April Adams - Salt Lake Wellness Examiner and Cat 5 years ago

    Great info! Thanks!!

  • Nancy Z-Grand Rapids Health Examiner 5 years ago

    Great information, though I wish cheese wasn't on the list. It's my one downfall.

  • Winona Cooking Examiner 5 years ago

    Excellent information, thank you!

  • Winona Home & Living 5 years ago

    Great info and explanations.

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