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

Does it help to think in terms of specific meals and snacks?

Of course. So you might say you have an allowance for 300 calories for breakfast, 500 calories for lunch, and 700 calories for dinner, with 300 calories left over for snacks. That totals 1,800 calories. When you look at your breakfast cereal with milk and see that it contains 300 calories, you know you’re OK. But if you add orange juice, which can actually be fairly high in calories, you may be over your limit.

You mentioned OJ. We’re hearing a lot about liquid calories being the worst culprit. Any thoughts on that?

The evidence shows that calories in liquid form, particularly sweetened drinks, have played a big role in the epidemic of overweight and obesity. Studies also show liquid calories don’t satisfy appetite the way calories in solid food do. Those liquid calories go down easily but don’t make you feel full. And, of course, some contain very little in the way of nutrition. So, not all calories are equal.

I definitely tell dieters to steer clear of liquid calories, whether in a sports drink, sweetened coffee or tea, or a soft drink. Water is the best choice. You can jazz it up with a squeeze of lemon or lime or a calorie-free flavored seltzer water. Artificially-sweetened beverages are another option, though some findings suggest that they may not help and may actually hinder weight loss efforts. A 2008 study found that people who consumed more than 21 artificially-sweetened beverages a week were much more likely to be overweight or obese.  No one knows why. But some people worry that artificial sweeteners may actually increase the craving for sugar. Again, water is the best choice.

Aside from calories per serving, what else on the label is helpful?

I counsel people to look at the label holistically. By that I mean to look at several items and evaluate them all together. Looking at the ingredients -- especially the first three ingredients -- is crucial. That shows you what you’re actually eating. If the food contains grains, you want to make sure they’re whole grains. Whole grains contain more nutrition per calories than refined grains. And the fiber they contain can help make food more filling. That’s very helpful, of course, when you’re dieting. High-fiber foods are also usually lower in calories, another benefit.

How much fiber is enough?

The official recommendations are for about 25 grams of fiber a day for women and 38 grams for men. Most people consume only about half that amount. So, for any particular food, the brand that contains the most fiber is one to consider. 

Should dieters also be concerned about fat in a product?

Yes, but not in the way most people think. Even though we’ve been trying to make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy fats for a long time, many people are still stuck on the idea that they should slash as much fat from their diet as possible. That’s a dangerous misconception. A meal should always include a healthy source of fat. Fat in a meal makes it more satisfying, both in terms of taste and in terms of how long it takes to digest. I don’t want people choosing zero, zero, zero.

I want them to choose foods with healthy fats. So, if you’re treating yourself to chips, for example, the wisest choice is a package that has unsaturated oil in the ingredients. If you’re having a sandwich, add a few slices of avocado. For breakfast, I often add some walnuts to cereal. The walnuts add a little fat. They make the meal more satisfying. And I don’t get hungry again as soon as I would eating just a bowl of cereal.

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