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Using Food Labels to Help You Lose Weight: Expert Q&A

Hundreds of diet books are published every year, each one claiming to offer -- at last! -- the secret to lasting weight loss. Yet, many hopeful dieters fail to read perhaps the most helpful information of all: The facts on the food label.

WebMD talked with registered dietitian Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, a former spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and well-respected private nutritional counselor, about what to look for on the label if you’re trying to lose weight.

First, are food labels helpful if you’re dieting to lose weight?

Absolutely. All the information you need to make wise food choices is there. With so many products on the shelves, and so many claims being made, the label is really essential for making an informed choice.

What’s the most important thing to look at?

For anyone who wants to lose weight, the serving size and the number of calories in a serving are the critical items. And they’re often misunderstood. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a package or bottle contains a single serving. No wonder. I was looking at a beverage bottle recently. It’s the size that most people open and finish. The label says 100 calories per serving. That sounds OK. But look closely and you’ll discover that there are three servings in the bottle. Drink the whole thing and you’ve consumed 300 calories -- way more than people hoping to lose weight should consume in a beverage.

Let me give you another example of how confusing packaged foods can be. I was looking recently at a frozen meal that promises to help you lose weight. Great, right? The package is made to heat up in the oven or microwave. So you assume the package is one serving, right? Wrong. Read the label and you’ll discover that it’s two servings. So even though the package says “only 350 calories per serving,” heat it up and eat the whole thing and you’ll consume 700 calories.

The bottom line: Look at the serving size. Then look at how many calories there are per serving. Then think about your own serving size -- how much you typically eat or drink.

Once you have the serving size down, how many calories should you shoot for?

To lose weight, of course, you have to consume fewer calories than you expend. The ideal daily number is different for different people, depending on gender, how active you are, and other factors. Let’s say for a moderately active woman who wants to lose weight, the goal is consuming no more than 1,700 calories a day. With that number in mind, when you look at a food label and the calories per serving, you have to think how that number fits into what you’ll be eating all day.

WebMD Medical Reference

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