It's easy to make food choices that are healthy and wise, provided you can make sense of the info on the side panel. So we handed a box of your typical breakfast cereal to New York City-based nutritionist Dana Winter, R.D., for a dissection.
This is the size of the portion on which the nutritional information is based—be it two cookies or a cup of cereal. For the most accurate accounting of what you personally consume in calories, etc., compare the size of the typical serving you eat to the one stated on the label by measuring and weighing portions. Compare brands by first comparing the listed serving sizes.
Your total fat intake per day should account for less than 30 percent of your total calories. That means that if you're on a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 600 calories should come from fat. Since one gram of fat contains 9 calories, 600 calories is equivalent to about 67 grams of fat. Here, one serving of the cereal has just 2 grams of fat—that's 18 calories and a mere 3 percent of the total calories per serving. You could stay below the 30 percent daily fat intake by similarly making sure that each food serving you eat has 30 percent or fewer calories coming from fat.
Saturated fat is the culprit fat, the one that's been definitively linked to heart disease. For a food to be considered low-fat, it can't contain more than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Your daily cholesterol count should be less than 250 grams per day. Most cereals don't contain cholesterol, which only comes from animal products.
2,400 mg of sodium a day should be your upper limit. Active people sometimes need more to replace losses due to exercise and sweating. (If hypertensive, check with your physician.)
Potassium plays a major role in fluid and electrolyte balance, and muscle contraction. While there is no Recommended Daily Allowance for potassium, experts says the minimum one should get per day is 2,000 mg. A medium banana contains 450 mg of potassium and a half cup of bell pepper boasts 90 mg.
Fiber has been linked to a decrease in the risk factors for heart disease and certain cancers, and aids in elimination. Aim for 25 to 35 grams per day. Good-for-you cereals contain at least three grams per serving.
The total number of carbohydrates, which are the primary source of energy, is derived by adding up all the carbohydrate sources, including dietary fiber, sugars and other carbohydrates (which is a voluntary listing that includes ingredients like flour). There are two types of carbohydrates: simple (those found in soda, candy and other sweets) and complex (found in starchy or fibrous foods like breads, grains, and fruits). Complex carbohydrates should constitute the bulk of our diets—55 to 65 percent of the total calories per leading authorities. Each gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories.
Be aware when reading an ingredient panel that many things masquerade as sugar, including, on this label, brown sugar, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt syrup, and corn syrup solids. Unlike fruit—which also contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber—these sweeteners provide no nutrients.
Sedentary adults need about .36 grams of protein (the building block of our muscles, blood, skin, hair and and nails) per pound of body weight per day (meaning that if you weigh 150 pounds, you need 54 grams daily). Active people may require more—about 0.54 to 0.82 grams per pound, depending on your exercise level and intensity, and your exercise goals. Each gram of protein has 4 calories.