Making Your Calories Count

As far as weight loss goes, calories is what is important. But for good health, which I hope you are all striving for as well, you want to make those calories count. The best way to help you do this is become an expert label reader. Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Serving Size and Calories: When looking at calories per serving, whether it is too high or too low depends on your calorie intake. However, 40 calories per serving is low, 100 calories per serving is moderate and 400 calories per serving is high. When you choose a food that is high in calories, make sure to balance it with something low in calories throughout the day. Make sure to look at the following:


  • What is the serving size?
  • How many servings per container?
  • What are the calories per serving?
Nutrition: When choosing foods, the %DV listed to the right of the nutrient can give you guidance as to what is most, or least, nutritious. Notice the label above. The items in yellow are those you want to limit (fat, cholesterol, sodium). That means that the %DV should be less than 5% for each of these. The items in blue are those you want to make sure you get enough of (fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron). For these items, the %DV should be 20% or more. Most products won’t have 20% or more of all the vitamins, minerals and iron but should have at least one or two. Again, balance foods throughout the day to meet these recommendations.

Ingredients: This can be the confusing part for most people. The ingredients are listed by weight with the heaviest ingredient listed first. General rule of thumb, if the first 3-5 ingredients are questionable, find a different product or a different brand. Also, avoid anything with “partially hydrogenated oil” listed in the ingredient list. Make sure to read the label for these and put it back on the shelf if it has it!

  • Grains: The first ingredient should have the word whole in it. If it says enriched or bleached or even just wheat flour, corn flour, etc…it isn’t a whole grain. Don’t trust packaging that says “nine-grain” or “Stone Ground Wheat”, make sure to look at the ingredients. Also, look for fiber to be 5 grams or more per serving and sugars to be less than 6 grams per serving.
  • Fruit: Buying fresh or frozen is the best choice. However, when looking for canned fruit, dried fruit or fruit juice, read through the ingredient list and make sure there is no sugar added. These calories can add up fast! Also, limit fruit juices to 4 oz (1/2 cup) per day. You will get much more fiber in less calories with less added sugar in fresh or frozen fruit.
  • Milk: Low fat or fat free is the way to go. You will eliminate most or even all the saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal products and will be left with the calcium, riboflavin, vitamin D, potassium and vitamin A found in dairy product. Make sure to choose skim milk, 2% cheese (or feta, parmesan and goat cheese since it is naturally lower in fat), fat free cottage cheese and yogurt. Stay away from fat free cheese since we start to wonder what it is made of. Most of the ingredients in these products should be straight forward. If not, find another brand. Buying organic is also an option!
  • Vegetables: Fresh and frozen is best! Try to limit canned vegetables, first for palatability and also for nutrition. Canned vegetables do maintain their nutrients but they are high in sodium. Look for low sodium vegetables and beans and rinse them to remove up to 30% of the sodium.
  • Meat: following is a list of the best cuts of each type of meat. Look for skinless, boneless poultry and fish most often and limit read meat (less than 2 servings per week).
    • Beef: eye of round, top round steak, top round roast, sirloin steak, top loin steak, tenderloin steak and chuck arm pot roast
    • Veal: cutlet, blade or arm steak, loin chop
    • Pork: tenderloin, top loin roast, top loin chop, center loin chop
    • Lamb: leg, loin chop, arm chop and foreshanks
    • Poultry: skinless, boneless turkey breasts and chicken breasts. Thighs and wings are higher in fat as well as other poultry products such as duck and goose. Also, trim all visible fat.
    • Game: Ostrich, Venison, Buffalo
    • Fish: Fish that is lighter in color is lower in fat. Fish that is firmer and darker such as salmon, mackerel and bluefin tuna are fattier fishes but also have more omega-3 fatty acids. Try to eat fatty fish 2-3 times a week.
  • Fats: This is where a list of ingredients comes in handy! Make sure to choose reduced fat options for most but don’t go to fat free because that is where we get a lot of additives, preservatives, and chemicals. Reduced fat products will have added natural soluble fibers (pectins, gums, mucilages) but that is just to improve the texture once the fat is taken out. Aim for monounsaturated fats most often (olive oil, canola oil, olives, avocados, and nuts – walnuts and almonds especially). Look for canola oil mayonnaise, canola oil based tub “margarines” such as Canola Harvest, olive oil vinaigrettes for salad dressing, use plain non-fat yogurt for sour cream and limit solid fats such as butter, lard, shortening, and stick margarines.

If you have any questions about any of this, leave it as a comment and I will answer it. Label reading can be tricky but if you can get the hang of it, it will save you every time!

Emily Fonnesbeck RD,CD