It’s no great secret that obesity is a problem in America. A little research reveals why – our diet is rich, exceeding the recommended intake levels of fats, sugars, sodium, and refined grains while eating few fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy. Nearly all Americans consume more sodium than is healthy, and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports that the number of fast food restaurants in the US has doubled since the 1970s. These are sobering statistics in and of themselves, and are made worse when one looks at the numbers on physical exercise. Over 80% of American adults do not get the recommended amount of weekly exercise (moderate aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes, or vigorous activity for 75 minutes, as well as muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week). Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend roughly seven and a half hours a day in front of a TV or computer screen. We have a health crisis on our hands.

Fortunately, there are signs that Americans are taking an increased interest in their own health. Demand for whole or healthy foods has grown over the last decade, and most restaurants offer healthier options – even on fast food menus. And while it’s wonderful to see the industry respond to this initiative, there are some surprises in store. Many supposedly healthy food products are anything but, often containing little nutritional value, high caloric content, excess fat or sodium, or all of the above. Never fear—an informed consumer can navigate the dietary minefield and make good food choices. All it takes is a little bit of knowledge.

We’ve told you to “read the label” several times now, but what does that mean. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all food products sold in the US be labeled using a standard format, which explains their caloric value, nutritional value, and ingredients, as well as the percentage daily value for a 2,000 to 2,500 calorie diet. These numbers are calculated for the recommended serving size, which is also clearly indicated on the label. Serving size is another number to watch out for—many seemingly single-serving products are labeled as containing two servings.

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As more Americans take an active interest in their health, the demand for good nutrition will only grow. Savvy consumers can follow the guidelines presented here, do their own research, and make the best choices in an often confusing marketplace. Eating well doesn’t have to be difficult, but it might take a bit of know-how. The tips presented here can help you find a delicious way to a healthier you! 

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