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The U.S. Department of agriculture has replaced the traditional food pyramid with a graphic of what a plate should look like, indicating the amount of fruits, veggies, protein, grains and dairy that should be included at a meal. Graphic courtesy of The USDA

Crunching into food labels

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Good fats, bad fats, too much sodium, too little fiber, serving size, portion control -- it can all get very confusing, especially when reading nutrition labels on foods.

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Lexi Sidener, a registered dietitian at Essentia Health St. Mary's, is teaching a class on label reading next month, trying to help individuals realize what they should be eating and how to sidestep the marketing tools companies use to get people to buy what's not so healthy for them.

They will "take the label and translate it into what they should be eating," she said about the meeting.

Reading labels can be daunting and confusing. But, arming yourself with a few tips can make a big difference.

Good fat, bad fat

For instance, the saturated and trans fats aren't good. Saturated fats are animal fats, butter, cream, etc. Trans fats are found in heavily processed foods.

The unsaturated fats (mono and poly specifically) are the ones you want. Those are found in nuts, avocados, oils, dressings, etc.

"Many people see the total fat and don't go any farther," she said of reading labels.

Watch the salt

Another confusing, or overlooked, ingredient can be sodium. When something is measured in milligrams, not many people actually know how much that is.

The recommended daily serving of sodium (or salt) is 2,300 milligrams. For someone who is over 55 or has high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the recommended amount is 1,500 milligrams.

So how much is 2,300 milligrams? About a teaspoon. So, a dash here and a dash there add up, not to mention all the sodium in processed foods.

Some soups, for example, have the amount of sodium in one serving that a person should have in an entire day.

"Flavor foods without all the sodium," Sidener suggested. "There are seasons that don't have the salt."

Fresh herbs, garlic, lemon and Mrs. Dash no sodium products are just a few examples.

How many portions?

Regardless of the numbers listed on the box or can, there's one other number that should be looked at to begin with. Some companies try to "trick" consumers with their portion sizes as well. Some sizes are so small, the average person would end up eating multiple servings in one sitting.

So, while a snack bag of chips, for example, may only have a small amount of calories or sodium listed, if you look at the servings in the bag, you actually need to double or triple the sodium number. But, it's also assumed that one person will be eating that snack bag of chips.

Sugar-free, fat-free

So many people will look for foods that take out the sugar or the fat or claim to be "light" or "lite."

"If they take out fat, they replace it with a lot of sugar and vise versa. If they take out sugar, they replace it with something else," Sidener said.

Also, when a box is labeled as "light," if the product already had lots of sugar in it, making it lighter doesn't necessarily make it healthy.

"You're not that much better off."

If a product has less than half a gram of trans fat in it, it can be listed as zero, she said. So, a company may want to make the serving size small enough to get the trans fat count under half a gram. Once you've eaten multiple servings, you've actually had multiple grams of trans fat and don't know it.

How many calories?

The average calorie intake for a female is 1,800-2,220 a day to maintain a certain weight. But, Sidener said, that doesn't take into account activity levels either. A woman who exercises and is much more active needs more calories. The same can be said for men.

The average calorie intake for men is 2,200-2,600 a day with little to moderate activity.

For weight loss, women should stay around 1,200 calories a day, and men should be around 1,500 a day. Anything less than that and a person can be missing out on important minerals and vitamins.

'High fiber' isn't high

Looking for something "high in fiber?" High fiber is considered more than 2 grams of fiber per serving, which still isn't high, she said.

Looks can be deceiving. Some breads add food coloring to make it a darker, more grainy looking slice. While white breads might be higher in fiber but are white to trick kids into liking it.

"You can't just zone in on one thing, but look at the whole label. You could get a lot of other things while trying to get that one thing you want."

Once you get past the levels of sodium, calories and fats in the product, then comes the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed from greatest to least.

For more help with labels and what the healthiest meal looks like, the government has made some changes to the traditional food pyramid. Instead of the pyramid, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed to a graphic of a plate and what it should look like.

It can be found at choosemyplate.gov along with other useful information on foods and reading labels.

The more user-friendly picture shows that fruits and vegetables should make up half of your plate, grains a little over a fourth of the plate and protein just under a fourth. Plus, a glass of dairy.

"You want to look at the quality of food in each compartment though," Sidener said.

Grains used to be the largest portion of the meal, but guidelines have changed over the years.

"It's more of a balanced plan," she said.

Whether it's grains, sodium or saturated fat, "typically people just don't know how much they have."

Sidener's goal: "To make them more of a savvy shopper."

Her class will be Oct. 2 from noon-1 p.m. in Essentia Health St. Mary's EMS Conference Room. RSVP is required by calling 844-0719.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.

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