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The best foods for weight loss don't even have nutrition labels

You won't find nutrition labels on berries, apples, sweet potatoes, broccoli or kale. On a healthy vegan diet, nearly all of the foods we buy are fruits, vegetables, dried beans, and whole grains. But most of us do use some packaged foods, so here are tips on how to select the best ones:

How to read nutrition labels

For weight loss and overall good health, there are four things we look for on labels:
  1. Percent of calories from fat
  2. Milligrams of sodium per calorie/serving
  3. Whole plant food ingredients
  4. Calorie density per ounce
The following are examples of each category, so you won't be fooled by food industry tricks.

1. Percent of calories from fat

Our goal is to keep our percent of calories from fat around 10%. Every whole plant food contains some fat. We don't want or need to add oil to plants to get enough fat. For a little extra boost of healthy omega 3 fats, we eat 1-2 Tbsp of ground flax seed or 1 oz of raw walnuts per day. Here is more information about our low fat vegan diet.
tahini label
The nutrition label at the right comes from a jar of tahini. Tahini is sesame seed paste. Many middle eastern and vegan recipes call for tahini. Hummus recipes nearly always contain it.

As you can see:
  • Tahini contains 190 calories per serving.
  • There are 140 fat calories per serving.
  • 140 divided by 190 is 0.74.
  • Tahini is 74% calories from fat: good for weight gain, not loss.

Tahini may be a relatively healthy whole plant food, but avoid using it until you reach your ideal weight. Put this product back on the shelf for now.

Read the nutrition labels on premade hummus. Then, if you are craving hummus, make your own, using just garbanzo beans, garlic, lemon juice, and spices.

Beware the food industry "fat tricks"

If a serving of food contains less than 1/2 gram of fat, the U.S. government allows the manufacturer to list the amount of fat as "0 grams". The food industry uses this loophole to hide the amount of fat in food. They specify a tiny, unrealistic portion size on the label. The tiny portion contains about 1/2 gram of fat, which they round down to zero.

You buy the product, believing it is "fat free". You use it liberally, maybe eating ten servings or more in a day. Ten servings X 0.5 grams = 5 grams of fat. That increases your daily fat percentage significantly, and you thought the food was fat free. Industry uses this trick on the nutrition labels of "fat free" oil sprays, "fat free" salad dressings, and other items.

You can catch these food companies at their game. Do it in two steps:

  1. Quickly scan the ingredient list looking for high fat plant foods and added fats. If you find any, assume that the product contains fat, even if the fat calories read "0 grams." 

  2. Assume that any product labelled as having 0 grams of fat per serving actually has 0.5 grams. Run your fat percent calculation based on that theory. To do that, remember that half a gram of fat contains 4.5 calories. If the calories per serving are listed as 9 and the product contains 4.5 calories from fat, it is 50% fat.
Companies play the same trick with trans fats. If there is less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per (tiny) serving, food companies can round it down to zero. And they do. If partially hydrogenated oil is in the ingredient list, the product contains trans fats. Trans fats are very harmful to health and we think it is unethical to omit them from nutrition labels. Buyer beware.

2. Milligrams of sodium per calorie/serving

Sodium in our diet is not much of a factor in weight loss or gain. If we eat too much salt, we might hang on to a few pounds of water weight. That has nothing to do with our fat stores. However, our goal is to lose weight using a healthy vegan diet. A healthy diet is low in sodium. Just as you adjust to eating plant foods, you can adjust to a low sodium intake. 

Americans get more sodium from processed foods than from any other source, and there isn't a way to "hide" it on nutrition labels. Here is a simple method you can use with packaged foods to help keep your sodium intake in the "healthy" ballpark:
  • Look at the calories per serving.
  • Check the milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • The sodium number should be no higher than the calories.
marinara sauce label
This label comes from a jar of organic marinara sauce. First we check percent calories from fat. It looks good, but is it? We glance at the list of ingredients.

Tomatoes, garlic, and spices are not on our list of high fat plant foods.  And even if 0 grams of fat is actually 0.5 grams, this would be 12.9% fat: 4.5 divided by 35. Not too bad.

(According to the USDA database, tomato puree is actually 5% fat and canned tomatoes are 6.8% fat.)

Second, we check for sodium:
  • Calories per serving are 35.

  • Sodium per serving is 290 mg. That is way out of the ball park.

  • An acceptable amount of sodium would be 35 mg or less per serving.

Put this one back on the shelf too. While you are there, check the nutrition labels for sodium content in canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, salsa, barbecue sauce, and marinara sauce. Look at canned soups too. You will be shocked.

You can find salt-free canned tomatoes in most grocery stores. Instead of 15 oz of (high sodium) tomato sauce, use 6 oz salt-free tomato paste thinned with 9 oz water. If there is a Trader Joe's in your area, look for their salt-free marinara sauce and salsa. Yum!

3. Natural plant food ingredients

If the product passes the fat and sodium tests, it is time to read the list of ingredients more closely. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the highest weight ingredient listed first. This time we look for more than high fat plant foods and added fats.

Be sure the package contains no animal products. Look for beef stock, chicken broth, fish sauce, eggs, and honey. Look for milk, dry milk, cream,  cheese, yogurt, whey, butter, cottage cheese, and the word casein or caseinate (a dairy protein.)

Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies, gelatin is made of cow parts, and white sugar is often filtered through animal bones.  "Natural flavors" can mean many things, including msg and animal stock.

Look for refined and processed ingredients like white flour, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and any word that looks like a chemical.

Beware the food industry "sugar tricks"

Look for an excessive amount of sweeteners:
  • Is sugar the first ingredient on the list? If so, there is more sugar in the product than any other ingredient.

  • Are there two, three, or more sweeteners listed, such as sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, or fructose? This is a trick to move the sugars down on the list of ingredients. Added together, they could be the number one ingredient. Separately, they might be the sixth, seventh, and eighth ingredients on the list. Tricky.

  • Look for mysterious things like powdered maple syrup or corn syrup solids. When manufacturers dehydrate a liquid sweetener, they remove the water content. It becomes lighter in weight. The calories in it do not change, but it moves lower on the ingredient list. 
If the ingredients are clearly whole plant foods, herbs, and spices, the product passes the ingredient test. Be thankful that products have nutrition labels. Without them, who knows what would be in our food. :-)

4. Calorie density

The final step is to check the calorie density of the product. Be sure to read our section on the calorie content of foods to understand the importance of calorie density.

You want to keep the calorie density of your diet near 35 calories per ounce. If you stay around that level and get some exercise every day, you will lose weight. Since most nutrition labels list weight by grams instead of ounces, it is quicker to calculate calories per gram. 35 calories per ounce is about the same as 1.25 calories per gram.
  • Look at the calories per serving.

  • Look at the grams per serving.

  • Divide the calories per serving by the grams per serving. This is the calorie density of the food per gram. Is it near 1.25?raisins label
Let's try reading the label from a package of raisins:

  • First, the percent of calories from fat looks great. Even if a serving contained 4.5 calories from fat, raisins would only be 3.5% fat: 4.5 divided by 130.

    (The USDA says 1.4% fat.)

  • Second, 10 mg of sodium in 130 calories is terrific.

  • Third, the ingredient list is simple: just California organic raisins.

Now for the calorie density:
  • The raisins have 130 calories per serving.

  • They weigh 40 grams per serving.

  • 130 divided by 40 is 3.25. The  calorie density of raisins is 3.25 calories per gram. Multiply 3.25 by 28.35 to find calories per ounce: 92 calories per oz.

That is a high calorie density, not good for weight loss. You can use an ounce  of raisins in your oatmeal, but don't snack on them. Instead of raisins, eat fresh grapes, which have a calorie density of only 17 calories per oz.

Here are the plant foods that are low calorie foods: foods with a low calorie density. If your product contains only these, you may eat as much of it as you like. There are only two exceptions:
  • Limit fruit to three servings per day.

  • Limit beans to one cup per day.

If the product you are analyzing contains any high calorie foods, you can do the calorie density math on it.

In truth, you will seldom have to use this calorie density math. But try to understand how it works. Why? Because calorie density explains why it is not enough to eat low fat foods. Many low fat foods have high calorie densities: foods like dried fruit, sweeteners, bread, and low fat baked goods. Small amounts are OK, but more will hinder your weight loss.

The rest of the nutrition label

Don't worry, there is nothing else you really need to know. The rest of the information on nutrition labels measures the percent of daily values in one serving of the product. We are eating high nutrient plant foods and we will get more than enough of those basic nutrients. However, please read this page to learn the few supplements vegans should use.

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