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“Food labels can be your biggest friend or your worst enemy,” says cardiologist Mehdi Razavi, MD, a heart disease specialist at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. There’s plenty of useful information if you know what to look for, he explains. But labels can also be confusing and even misleading if you don’t consider the whole picture. Razavi spoke with WebMD about how to use food labels to lower your risk of heart disease.

First, how helpful are food labels for choosing a heart-healthy diet?

Very helpful. In fact, most of the information on the food label was chosen based on studies of heart disease and diet. So if you keep an eye on labels, you can lower your risk of heart disease.

What’s the first thing to look at?

The top of the Nutrition Facts panel shows what a serving size is and how many calories a serving contains. Obviously, if you’re overweight or have trouble maintaining a healthy weight, keeping an eye on calories is important.

Excess weight is a significant risk factor for heart disease. Most women should average about 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day – and even less, about 1,700 calories, if they’re trying to lose weight. Most men should consume about 2,500 calories. Those numbers vary based on how active you are. People who are diabetic or overweight should try to limit their calorie intake even further. 

Make sure you know what a serving size is, since that can be confusing. If a package indicates 150 calories per serving but it contains two servings, you’ll consume 300 calories if you eat the whole package.

What about fat on the label?

We’re less concerned than we once were about total fat. A healthy diet can get 30% of its calories from fat. What matters more is the type of fat, and here food labels come in handy, because they clearly indicate saturated and unsaturated fat. Most of the fat you consume should be unsaturated. Some saturated fat is fine. In fact, the body needs a little. But no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. If your LDL ( “bad”) cholesterol is high, no more than 7% of your calories should come from saturated fat.

What about trans fats?

Trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils. They’ve been shown to be even more dangerous to the cardiovascular system than saturated fats. The less trans fat you consume, the better. Labels can be a little confusing. Products can call themselves trans fat-free if they contain less than half a gram per serving. That amount isn’t a problem if you eat such foods now and then. But if you eat them frequently, you may be consuming more trans fats than is healthy. If you want to eliminate trans fats entirely, look on the ingredient label and choose foods that do not contain partially hydrogenated oils. Be sure to make sure the food is also low in saturated fat. Some companies have replaced trans fats with saturated fat, which isn’t healthy, either.

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