_MG_7321-EditLosing weight without effort sounds like another 2 a.m. infomercial. But there is some truth to it. Spanish research recently showed that people who read food labels while they shop weigh 9 pounds less than those who don’t scroll the nutritional information.

Certainly, this is another way to boost your overall health without sore muscles, but screening food labels can easily turn into a headache.

“While many nutrition labels are determined and monitored by the FDA, some are not and are up to the manufacturer’s discretion for marketing purposes,” says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, author of Portion Teller Plan: The No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating, and Losing Weight Permanently. “People often misunderstand the labels, especially because they can create health halos where you will eat more because you think it’s healthy.”

I confess that sometimes I’ve been caught up in healthy claims, such as 100% natural, light, reduce fat, and so many others tags that we associate with eating clean. Unfortunately, many of these claims, when not properly understood, can be packed with the same or even more of the ingredients we try to avoid, such as high calories per serving, saturated and/or trans fat, sugar, sodium, and some names we cannot even pronounce.

So what should you look for—and avoid? Here are some suggestions:

Your New Shopping List

–        100% Natural: Perhaps one of the worse health claims. The word “natural” is not regulated by the FDA. “Sugar is natural, but if it’s the first ingredient, the food will most likely contain a large amount of calories with limited nutrient value,” says Erin Palinski, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.

–        Good Source of Whole Grain: Whole-grain has been added to almost every food product on the supermarket shelf—from baby soup and salads to side dishes and chips. However, according to an article published in Nutrition Today, a review of 72 nationally distributed ready-to-eat cereals that contained front package whole grain claims found that the fiber content varied considerably, ranging from 0 to 11 g per serving. This means two things: a good source of whole grains doesn’t mean its high in fiber nor does it indicate how much whole grain the product contains. Always look for 100% whole grain and at least 3g of fiber per serving.

–        Low Fat, Low Sodium, Light, or Reduced: While food labeled low fat (3 g of fat or less per serving) and/or low sodium (140 mg or less of sodium per serving) must meet a set standard to stamp this claim on packages, foods labeled as “reduced” or “light” simply has less than the original amount. For instance, “light in calories” means one-third fewer calories than the original product; “light in sodium-fat” is one-half the amount of the original food, explains Palinski. Still, depending on the original content, the light or reduced version can deliver plenty of calories, sugar, saturated fat, or sodium.

–        High in Fiber: For a food to be labeled high in fiber, it must provide 5 g of fiber or more per serving. However, it can contain either natural or added fiber. And studies show that some added fibers do not provide the same health and weight benefits as the natural sources. So make sure one of the first three ingredients are whole grains; chances are the fiber comes from natural sources.

–        Contains Omega-3 or Probiotics: Omega-3 fatty acids are great for the heart, brain, and skin. Likewise, the good intestinal bacteria found in probiotics keep the gut and immune system working at its best. However, these two tags are not regulated by the FDA, which means a food source can say it contains these, but it does not have to list the amount or the type of probiotic. “Look for products that label the milligrams of omega 3s and list the CFUs of probiotics along with the specific type of probiotic,” advises Palinski.

–        Low Carb: Most diet plans tell you to cut back on carbohydrates and pack on the protein and healthy fats. This makes any “low carb” boast more convincing to you to lose weight. But currently there are no FDA regulations for the use of carbohydrate claims on food labels. Just remember that not all carbohydrates are made up of sugar. Some like whole grains and legumes provide fiber, folic acid, vitamin B, magnesium, and other important minerals and vitamins that are good for your health and waist.

–        Sugar Free or No Added Sugar: Sugar free does not mean calorie free nor does it guarantee the food contains no artificial sweeteners. And “no added sugar” simply means that no more sugar than what the food originally contains has been added.  However, the food can be high in sugar already. Look for sources that contain natural sugar with a range between 5 g and 13 g of sugar per 100 g. For instance, 8 oz. of milk provides 12 g of natural sugar.

–        Organic and/or Gluten free: People now have more knowledge and information about what makes a food product organic (the label should say 100% organic certified) or gluten free (no wheat, barley, or rye). Both have been linked to a better health. In the case of 100% organic food, studies show the food contains higher antioxidants, minerals, and healthy omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (a type of fat that has been linked to reducing weight). The case for gluten free matters if someone has Celiac disease or diagnosed with gluten intolerance. But it is not magic weight loss solution. Nevertheless, grocery stores are packed with anything from candies to sodas slapped with gluten-free claims. Gluten-free foods can still have high amounts of fat and calories and sometimes even more than their gluten counterparts. Bottom line: unless you have a medical or health need, you should pass on gluten-free.

–        Paleo Food: This is the new diet kid on the block. Products with the Paleo stamp evoke simple, cavemen-like eating habits, and free of processed foods. While the Paleo diet favors the intake of protein, good fats, and produce, and limited amounts of dairy and grains, a good amount of food products labeled “Paleo: fill the blank” are high in calories and fat. Some not the best type of fats either. Want to eat like a true caveman? Stick with natural whole foods. Cavemen never ate out of a box.

If you forget this food label shopping list remember two things: check the calories per serving – anything that you read in the package must be multiply by the amount of servings. So if the food has 150 calories per serving and the packages says 2 servings, it means you will consume 300 calories if you eat the whole package as well as double the amount of the labeled sugar, fat, and sodium. Also, note in what order the ingredients are listed: This indicates how much of each is in the food. The first listed will be the most amount. Likewise, the fewer ingredients listed, the better.