The best foods
for weight loss don't even have nutrition labels
You won't find nutrition labels on berries, apples, sweet potatoes,
kale. On a healthy vegan diet, nearly all of the foods we buy are
beans, and whole grains. But most of us do use some packaged foods, so
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:
The following are examples of each category, so you won't be
fooled by food industry tricks.
- Percent of calories from fat
- Milligrams of sodium per calorie/serving
- Whole plant food ingredients
- Calorie density per ounce
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.
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
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
fat in food. They specify a tiny, unrealistic portion
size on the label. The tiny portion contains about
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
free" oil sprays, "fat free"
salad dressings, and other items.
You can catch these food companies at their game. Do it in two
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.
- 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."
- 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
4.5 calories. If the calories per serving are listed as 9 and
contains 4.5 calories from fat, it is 50%
2. Milligrams of sodium per
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
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.
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
- An acceptable amount of sodium would be 35 mg
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
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,
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
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
Look for an excessive amount of sweeteners:
If the ingredients are clearly whole plant foods, herbs, and
spices, the product passes the ingredient test. Be
that products have nutrition labels. Without them, who knows what would be in our
- 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
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
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
you will lose weight. Since most nutrition labels list weight by
grams instead of ounces, it is quicker to calculate calories per gram.
per ounce is about the same as 1.25 calories per
Let's try reading the label from a package of raisins:
- 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?
- 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
(The USDA says 1.4% fat.)
- Second, 10 mg of sodium in 130 calories is
- Third, the ingredient list is simple: just
California organic raisins.
Now for the calorie density:
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
only 17 calories per oz.
- 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.
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.
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
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.