How to Read Food Labels If You Have Heart Disease

Why you should make it a habit to read them before you get to the checkout
Reading Food Labels

Be honest. Do you read the nutrition labels on your yogurt, bread or salsa at the grocery store? Maybe you peek at the calorie content, but do you look at the other nutritional components or the serving size before putting it in your cart?

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Here preventive cardiology dietitian Kate Patton, RD, LD, explains 7 key things you should look for on food labels to help you manage any cardiac risk factors you have.

1. Calorie content

You probably know that calories are listed in bold type near the top of food labels, where it’s visible at a glance. But If you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, this number isn’t enough.

“Check the amount of calories per serving,” Patton says. “Serving size is very important.”

Because consumers are more likely to buy foods with a reasonable calorie content, the calories may be listed for an unrealistic portion size — like 10 chips.

“You can’t assume it’s for the entire bag or box,” Patton says. “If you don’t watch the portion size, it’s easy to consume many more calories than you expect.”

2. Fats

The amount of total fat in a food is listed in grams, with types of fats listed separately below.

On the right, you’ll see the number of grams for total fat and saturated fat as percentages of the recommended amount per day, now called “percentage of daily value (%DV),” on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.

“If you have high cholesterol, the amount of saturated fat is important. To lower your cholesterol, no more than 5% of your total daily calorie intake should come from saturated fat,” Patton says.

3. Cholesterol

The recommended amount of cholesterol is 300 mg a day, but Patton says this is too much.

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“Strive to consume less,” she says.

4. Sodium

Because sodium causes water retention, a low-sodium diet is a “must” for people with heart failure or hypertension. A food can be labeled “low sodium” if it contains 140 mg or less.

If you have heart failure, your doctor will set a daily limit for sodium.

If you have hypertension or are at risk for it, you should restrict sodium intake to a maximum of 1,500 mg a day. You are considered at risk if you have diabetes or kidney disease, are African-American or are age 50 or older.

Most other people can limit their sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day.

5. Total carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are sugars and foods that turn into sugar.

“Bad” carbs raise blood sugar quickly and contribute to the formation of harmful triglycerides. Bad carbs are listed on labels as “added sugars.” The category includes table sugar, honey, molasses, high fructose corn syrup and any other form of sugar that is not naturally found in the food.

The %DV for added sugar is 36 g a day for men (about 9 teaspoons) and 25 g a day for women (6 teaspoons).

If you have prediabetes, diabetes or high triglyceride levels, you want to steer clear of bad carbs.

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Foods high in dietary fiber are considered “good” carbs. That’s because they turn into sugar more slowly, which helps keeps blood sugar levels even and prevents spikes.

Just about everyone should eat more fiber, Patton says. It’s especially important when trying to lower your cholesterol. “Aim for at least 25 g of fiber a day. Men need up to 35 g,” she says.

6. Protein

The DV of protein is 50 g, although “most Americans consume more than that,” Patton says. Protein is always listed on the label, even if it’s not present in the food.

“Knowing the amount of protein may be important for someone with chronic kidney disease, who has to limit protein intake,” she says.

7. Vitamins + minerals

Many vitamins and minerals used to be listed last on the labels. Today, you’ll find only those considered important for a balanced diet. These include vitamin D and potassium.

“That’s because many Americans do not get the recommended amounts,” Patton says. Vitamin D is necessary for bone health. Potassium is important for controlling blood pressure. Calcium and iron are also listed.

“Look at the %DV, just so you make sure you understand how much that serving will contribute to the total amount you need in a day,” Patton says. “You can trust that the figures are based on new scientific evidence for the amount of nutrients you should consume or not exceed.”

Read the ingredients too!

Besides the actual nutrition facts label, Patton says it’s important to read the actual ingredient list. She recommends you:

  1. Choose foods with as few ingredients as possible.
  2. The first ingredient listed in a grain product should say “whole.” Whole grains have a minimum of 2.5 g of fiber per serving.
  3. Avoid bleached or enriched grains.
  4. Sugar shouldn’t be listed among the first five ingredients.

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