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Easy Guide to Understanding Food Labels: For Sustainable Weight Loss

By 26th September 2020 October 8th, 2020 No Comments

There are many tools available to help you on your journey to losing weight. One vital skill to pick up is understanding the food labels. Food labels can help you sieve through misleading claims, shop faster and make better food choices to have a greater chance of weight loss success. Let’s learn to find out the truth for yourself!

Source: US FDA

The basics for achieving weight loss is simple – we need to be burning more calories than the amount of calories consumed. Naturally, watching out for the calories through the food we consumed is part of the strategies to lose weight, with many people opting for a “low fat, low carb diet”. However, whether you are calorie counting or controlling your portions, you should not base your choice just because a product is lowest in calories or has a low-calorie claim on it.

Most Misleading Food Label Claims | Naked Food Magazine

Source: Naked Food Magazine

Ignore the claims on the packaging

Did you know? Many “low-fat” and ‘lite’ products can be high in fat, sugar, calories and salt. These ingredients in excess can lead to hunger, weight gain and disease!

Claims stated by the manufacturers often don’t tell you the whole story. In fact, these health and nutrient can be nutritionally meaningless and misleading.


Never evaluate a product based on the claims on the packaging, and never on a single nutrient or by calories alone.


For example, the calories of a “light” version and the regular version of ice creams may not differ much. The “light” version may still pack 4 to 5 grams of fat per serving, and may contain more sugar than the regular version to make up for the lack in texture.

Another example is the “no added sugar” claim – which does not necessarily mean the product has no sugar. It just means no extra sugar added to the product during manufacturing. However, the ingredients used can already be naturally high in sugars, such as in canned fruits and fruit juices.

Therefore, don’t evaluate a product based on the claim on its packaging, and never on a single nutrient or calories alone.

Source: HealthLine

Always check the nutrition information panel and ingredient list

These will tell you exactly what is in the food or drink product.

For instance, biscuit products may claim “trans fat free” on the packaging but if you see “margarine”, “shortening”, “hydrogenated”, “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil in the ingredient list, you’ll be sure that these ingredients will still cause your arteries to clog as trans fat do.

The ingredient list shows the ingredients used in the largest to the smallest amount by weight. The ingredient list is especially useful to check if the product contains trans fat as well as the types and amounts of sugar used in the product.

Look out for hidden sugars

Let’s be clear about this: Sugars found in dairy, legumes, fruits and vegetables in their original whole forms are healthy, but it’s those sugars that have been removed from their original source and added to food and drinks that we need to be mindful of.

Sugars provide calories but without the nutrients. Avoid any kinds of sweeteners (yes, honey and brown sugar too!) as much as you can, especially artificial ones, which give you the sweetness without many calories. For long-term weight loss, it takes some re-training of our taste buds and body to get used to the “new normal”. To achieve weight loss, we should be reducing the intake of these “empty calories” and only have these occasionally as a small treat.

Source: Diabetes UK

Try to avoid products with high amounts of sugar. How would you know? Check that sugar or any other sweeteners are not listed in the first 3 to 5 ingredients. See if you can spot any of these names on the ingredient list when you go shopping next time!

Some suggested serving size can be smaller than what people can have under normal circumstances, so pay attention to the serving size and number of servings in that package, and compare it to how much you’re actually eating. Does the amount of food reflect the quantity you would usually have?

Note the 106 calories per serving, and there are 4 servings in the pack. If you finish the pack of dried apricots by yourself, you would have consumed 416 calories.

To easily compare information across 2 or more products, use the Per 100g column, which tells you how much nutrients you will get in 100 grams of the product.



Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Choose products with higher dietary fibre and wholegrains

If you’re trying to lose weight, dietary fibre is your best friend. Eating a diet high in dietary fibre can help to regulate your digestive system, make you feel fuller for a longer time, lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and reduce your calorie intake.

Dietary fibre is found in many non-packaged foods like fruits and vegetables. In packaged foods, they can be found in products made from wholegrains such as rice and bread, as well as nuts, seeds, mushrooms, beans in canned or dried forms, and fruits and vegetables in frozen or canned forms.

Besides its fibre content, wholegrains comes with many benefits and are important sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that contribute positively in weight management and lowering risks of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Like the example above, many products claim to be wholegrain or wholemeal but the first ingredient in the list is often wheat flour, which is actually refined flour. Check that WHOLE grains, WHOLE wheat, wholemeal are the first or second ingredient listed for the real wholegrain deal. Unbleached flour, enriched high protein wheat flour are all refined flours.

That said, note that Healthier Choice Symbol with ‘higher in wholegrains’  claim may be awarded to this product as it proved to contain at least 20% higher wholegrain content than the regular version of a similar product. This is why checking the ingredient list is so important – don’t be tricked by product name or claims!  

To quickly identify healthier products, look out for the Healthier Choice Symbols below.

Choose products with less Saturated fat, added sugars, Sodium

Too much saturated fat, added sugars and sodium (salt) are linked to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and even some cancers.

When trying to lose weight, cut back on foods that contain high amounts of those listed above. They are often high in calories, making it harder to consume important nutrients while staying within the calorie limits. These are found in many processed and ultra-processed items like those in the snack aisle, sweetened beverages and dessert items.


Remember that even freshly squeezed juice contain high amounts of sugar.


Drink water instead of sugary drinks, it’s the best (and calorie-free!) source to keep you hydrated. Fruit juice is not the same as fruit – choose fruit over juice, have 100% fruit juice only occasionally as a treat. Remember that even freshly squeezed juice contain high amounts of sugar. Be sure to look at the food labels to be aware of sugar contents – 5 grams of sugar is equal to a teaspoon of sugar!

To get a good gauge of how much sodium to have per day: the daily sodium limit is 1 teaspoon, or 2,300 mg of sodium. Pre-packaged foods are definitely a significant source of sodium so try to avoid these and go as fresh and natural as possible.

Products with the Healthier Choice Symbol has met the nutritional standards set by the Health Promotion Board. These triangular symbols are regulated and awarded to manufacturers whose products meet certain requirements.

For instance, products containing less than 0.5g trans-fat per 100g fat are allowed to be labelled as ‘trans-fat free” (NOTE: this is a different claim than the manufacturer’s own claims!). This means that there could still be small amounts of trans-fat in the products and consuming large amounts of these can still significantly contribute to the trans-fat intake, so make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list!

The bottom line is, the Healthier Choice Symbol helps you to pick healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.

Look for credible source and personalised guidance to help you

It can be quite overwhelming to sieve out credible information and distinguish them among the good-will advice from family and friends. I hope the article has broken down and explain these features so they make sense to you.

Everyone’s weight loss journey looks different. If you want further information or need more tailored guidance for weight loss and improve your health, the nutrition experts at MyDoc can help you navigate your way to better health and quality of life. Find us here.


Jacqueline Joose

Jacqueline Joose

Jacqueline is an Accredited Dietitian (APD, ADS) with Dietitians Australia and Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, and also a Certified Health Coach, CHC from the National Society of Health Coaches in the USA. She has worked across a wide range of clinical wards in major hospitals in Australia, as well as in the areas of private nutrition practice, food service management, community and public health nutrition. ​Back in Singapore, Jacqueline has since then ventured into the digital health space as a dietitian, and honed additional health coaching skills in the specialised medical fields of Lifestyle Medicine and Preventive Cardiology. On a personal level, Jacqueline is someone who eats to live - a motto all foodies live by. She doesn’t advise strict dieting or eating boring, tasteless foods to improve health. Jacqueline believes that the best outcomes come through balance, allowing clients to achieve their goals while still enjoying the foods they love. Her favourite part of the job is seeing the “light bulb” switch on when patients make that connection, and the satisfied glow on their faces, brought about by health improvements through diet and lifestyle changes.

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