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Navigating the Nutrition Facts Label to Reach Destination HEALTH

Nutrition Label

Nutrition Fact labels are like the road map to your food. When you're planning travel to a new place, you need to look at a map to effectively navigate to your chosen destination; it's the same for your health and wellness goals. Whether your goal is weight loss, eating for heart health or eating less sugar, it's important to turn your food and beverage packages over and check the label so you can figure out if they'll help or hinder your goal of reaching your chosen health destination.

Start by reading a Nutrition Facts label at the top – look at the serving size and servings per container. The serving size will tell you the measured portion of food that the numbers on the label apply to. Many packages that look like single servings, such as a can of soup, a prepackaged muffin or bottle of fruit juice, contain 2-3 servings per container, so if you plan to eat the entire package you'll need to do some math. Here are some additional tips to help you reach "destination HEALTH":

  • Know your calorie budget: Knowing your daily calorie budget allows you to plan how many calories to "spend" on each meal, snack and beverage, and which products are simply too expensive in calories to afford. If you don't know what your budget is, use an online calorie calculator, such as USDA's SuperTracker.
  • Pack light: Fat contains the most calories per gram (9 kcal/gram) compared to carbohydrates and protein (4 kcal/gram), so it can be a "heavy " macronutrient. Fat is important, but we want to ensure we're eating the good fats, limiting the bad fats and avoiding the ugly fats. The American Heart Association's infographic will clarify which fats to pack, and which to leave behind.
  • Plan an itinerary: If we aren't planning our meals ahead of time, we may reach for convenience foods in a pinch, but beware: Pre-packaged convenience foods can be high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure and affect your heart health. Choose foods that have 300mg of sodium or less per serving, or if you already have high blood pressure, are over age 51 or are African-American, choose foods with 150mg or less of sodium per serving. The CDC Vital Signs can help you identify the highest sodium foods.
  • Don't run out of fuel: Carbohydrates provide us with energy to fuel our activity. Fill up on fiber-rich sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Fiber protects against some cancers and can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Beware of the added sugar content of your foods though – the American Heart Association recommends less than 6 teaspoons daily for women and less than 9 teaspoons per day for men to optimize your health.

Don't get lost on your journey; try making some healthy USAF FitFamily recipes at home to stay on track. And be sure to read Nutrition Facts labels on all of your foods and beverages to reach your health and wellness destination.

(Denise Campbell is a registered dietitian, assigned to the 52nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany)

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