Wellness·7 min read

Nutrition Labels and Beyond: How To Eat ‘Healthy’

beyond nutrition labels
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
September 10, 2021

You check the back of the box before you buy, but what happens from there is anyone’s guess. 

Yes, I’m trying to eat healthy. Please advise.

First, let’s talk about what ‘healthy’ means to you. Reminder: Weight and clothing size can be arbitrary numbers that don’t actually measure health. (See: diet culture.) ‘Eating healthy’ could mean: avoiding energy slumps throughout the day, being able to focus, having better sleep, and being (generally) in a good mood. What you eat is fuel. But it’s also more than that. Food can be an important part of making social and cultural connections. 

So what — and how much — should I put on my plate?

Decisions, decisions. It depends on your activity level, body type, allergies, medical conditions, and more. But here’s something you should NOT do: skip meals. That includes breakfast. Because calories equal energy, and data shows that skipping breakfast is bad for your heart. So if you’re ‘not a breakfast person,’ think about why. Is it because you’re ‘too busy,’ not hungry (perhaps from a very late dinner, which studies indicate may not be the way to go), or because you’re a black coffee only kind of person (when you could get more energy from adding food to the equation). Because you can — and likely should— eat beyond those three square meals a day. You’ve heard it before: Some dietitians recommend eating at least a snack every 3-4 hours.  

But what about my metabolism?

New research suggests that your metabolism typically stays steady from age 20-60 (and metabolic rates between men and women may not really differ, FWIW). Thing to know: According to registered dietitian nutritionist Shana Minei Spence, who we spoke to for this piece, ‘saving up’ for a later, bigger meal, could slow down the way your body converts your food into energy. Because, after restricting calories, a too-hungry body will go into starvation mode. And that could leave you feeling horrible. And hangry. The long story short: Changing the way you eat in order to change your resting metabolism is pretty pointless. 

Expert Interviewed

Shana Spence, MS ,RDN, CDN

Shana Spence, MS ,RDN, CDN - Shana Spence is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York City.

Mindful eating starts with understanding what makes up your food. So let’s define some terms...

A quick note: RDN Spence helped us with the below nutrition info, but you should talk to your doctor or dietitian about your specific needs. If you have insurance, it’s possible that a visit with a dietitian could be covered, particularly if it’s considered a preventative service, your PCP refers you, or if you have a specific health condition like diabetes.

Calories...Simply put, units of energy in food. And no, we don’t suggest you count them, because studies show that doing so could be linked with disordered eating. Thing to know: A 2,000 calorie diet (which is the daily value on nutrition labels) isn’t a perfect fit for most people, especially for active millennials who likely need more than that. But 2,000 is a nice and round number that’s easy to interpret, and it became the standard. If you’re a mathlete, check out the USDA calculator to estimate your personal calorie needs. 

Fat...Some people are so scared of this word that they add the word ‘healthy’ in front of it. But Spence reminds us that you need fat to regulate hormones, give you energy, and to absorb certain vitamins and minerals. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the amount of trans and saturated fats (often found in red meat and baked goods) you eat, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or stroke. Because too much of those could be a problem, even for millennials, particularly if you have naturally high cholesterol.

Cholesterol...Not to be confused with having high cholesterol. It’s a waxy substance that your liver produces, that helps make vitamin D (among other things). But you can also intake cholesterol through food. Eating lots of foods that increase your cholesterol (read: have lots of saturated fat) can lead to plaque build up in your arteries. From there, things can get sticky. Note: You don’t need to “demonize” eggs, as Spence puts it. Allergies (or preferences) aside, there’s no reason to avoid scrambles or omelets (yolks and all), which were once thought to be bad for your heart because they’re relatively high in cholesterol.

Sodium...It’s something your body needs in the hotter months to replace all the sodium you lose from sweating, but eating too much (nutrition labels say that’s more than 2,300mg or about 1 teaspoon of salt) can cause your blood pressure to rise. However, ‘too much’ for you may depend on whether you have a family history of high blood pressure. 

Carbs...They turn into glucose, which means more energy. No, it’s not just marathoners who need them: You literally need glucose to sit and think. When people talk about ‘complex’ carbs, they mean foods like veggies and whole grains that have longer chains of sugar molecules (which make for more lasting energy). Those are different from ‘simple’ carbs like sweetened drinks and cereals with added sugar. 

Protein...Feel free to eat it, drink it, or both. Protein helps repair cells and tissue, and keeps you feeling satisfied. It’s possible to include protein for most meals, even for vegans and raw food enthusiasts, because it's in meat, nuts, and soy.

Sugar...By any other name is pretty much just as sweet. We’re talking honey, agave, table sugar, and Splenda — they’re all digested in a similar way, Spence says. So pay attention that you’re not having too much sugar (50 grams or roughly 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day is what you’ll see on a nutrition label), but you do you. Sugar is a simple carb. And those carbs can give you a quick energy boost. But overdoing it can make you feel sluggish, and totally restricting it could lead to cravings — and, as Spence warns, binging later. 

There’s a lot to consider. So how do I choose? 

Spence says to start with this: Listen to what your body is telling you. (See: intuitive eating.) Shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but it might be. Step two: Monitor how you feel when you eat certain foods. Stomachaches, fatigue, lack of concentration, stress, headaches, and GI issues could all indicate that it’s time to make a change, which could mean anything from taking more vitamins to eating more often. You already know that fruit, veggies, and whole grains are part of a balanced diet, but those don’t have to be boring. Because kale isn’t the only green food that exists.

Expert Interviewed


When it comes to your health, your body cues are a lot more important than numbers on a scale or food label. So eating well really means finding the foods that help you feel your best. If you need help nailing down your nutrition needs, reach out to a doctor or dietitian. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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