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Nutrition Spotlight - Read Food Labels Like a Pro

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

May 16, 2023
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Nutrition Spotlight » Nutrition Spotlight – Read Food Labels Like a Pro

The food label can be your friend when navigating your diet during cancer treatment, and even eating to prevent cancer. For instance, when managing your weight (increased weight is a risk factor for developing cancer), calories are very important and watching added sugars can help keep calories down. During cancer treatment, you may be told to monitor your fiber intake if you develop constipation or diarrhea. Additionally, sometimes treatment causes anemia and it’s important to keep tabs on iron. Your dietitian can help you know what YOU specifically are looking to eat more or less of.

Regardless of your specific recommendations or goals, packaged foods contain data on the label that can serve as a resource for you to make informed decisions about what you eat. Here are three places to check:

The Nutrition Facts Panel

This is the black and white rectangular box containing nutrient names and values. For instance, this is the place you would check for how many calories and how much protein, fiber, added sugars, iron (and more!) is in a serving of food you may choose to eat. Nutrients are listed in absolute amounts (e.g., grams, milligrams, IU in the case of vitamin D) and as a percentage of a daily amount. The latter is represented as %DV (daily value) which helps you determine how much a nutrient is present compared to the recommended amount to achieve or not exceed per day.

Pro tips!

  • Noting the number (and size) of a serving is important. For instance, if there are two servings in a package, and you eat the whole thing, then all the nutrients in a serving would be multiplied by two.
  • Percent DV is used differently depending on whether it’s a nutrient you are trying to get more or less of. For instance, added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium should be limited in the diet. Inversely, fiber and potassium are nutrients that most people don’t consume enough of. Use the 5-20 rule to gauge what you are eating. If a food is 5% that’s considered “low” and 20% is “high”.

The Ingredients Statement

The ingredients statement is where to find all the ingredients that are present in any given food product.

Pro tips!

  • Ingredients are listed in decreasing order, so a food product contains most of the first ingredient and the least of an ingredient that is listed last. For instance, if you are trying to eat more whole grains (in general, many people don’t eat enough), you want to make sure that the label says “whole wheat,” “oats,” or another type of whole grain first.
  • This is the place to look if you have a food allergy or sensitivity. Sometimes allergens are listed at the bottom as in “contains” or “may contain”. Sometimes they are in bold.

Front of Package

There are various types of statements that you may see on the front of a package. It may be related to a health condition (e.g., “Development of cancer depends on many factors. Eating a diet high in grain products, fruits, and vegetables that contain dietary fiber may reduce your risk of some cancers.”) or simply that a food is “healthy” (yes, this is a word that you are only able to use if you have enough nutrition and not too much of nutrients that are over-consumed) or how a food related to a healthy overall diet (e.g., “Eat a variety of protein foods, including nuts and seeds.”).

Have diet and nutrition questions? Comment below and it may be chosen for a future blog!

By: Shelley Maniscalco – Registered Dietitian

Virginia Cancer Specialists Dietitians