2208 University Blvd Suite 102
Birmingham, AL 35233

Alabama Lifestyle Medicine - Dr. Noah Gudel, D.O.

What Should I Eat? How to Read Food Labels

An easy way to avoid interpreting food labels is to do all of your grocery shopping in the produce section of the grocery store. But I live in the real world, and don’t even do that myself! Much like casinos, grocery stores are based on human psychology, and the assault to our senses is real. Ever wonder why the sugar-laden cereals are right a child’s-eye-level? And, why there is candy and junk food at the checkout stand (as well as peppered throughout the rest of the store)? “Decision fatigue” is real, and the Food Industry plays on the weaknesses they have studied so well.

Pro tips

First, a couple simple tips to abide by:

  1. Do not, do not, do not shop hungry. This will lead to all sorts of poor decision-making.
  2. Same with fatigue. Shopping while tired will lead to similarly bad decisions.
  3. General rule to follow is to stick to the outer aisles of the store, however you will need to dart into the middle for beans, sugar-free pasta sauce, sugar-free jam, etc). But, you should be spending 90% of your time in the produce section, so you should have no problem keeping to the outer aisles – for the most part.

Look at the serving size and ingredients

I wouldn’t recommend tuna (as with all animal protein it contains IGF-1 which is a tumor promoter), but I am aware of the labelling, so I’ll just use this example for discussion. The can that we are all used to, adequate for a sandwich or wrap, is 300 calories. However, the label shows a large “100 Cal,” so what gives? Further reading shows that the “100 cal” applies to each serving, of which there are 3 per can, so if one was to eat the entire can, one would be consuming 300 calories.

Beware long ingredient lists

Additionally, the longer the ingredients list, and the more-chemical-ly it sounds, the more likely it is to be processed (think white rice) or ultra-processed (think Cheerios). One example of a great ingredients label is for natural peanut butter, the ingredients of which should be “peanuts” and nothing more. One fabulous way I’ve started to think about processed foods is that they are “pre-chewed” foods, as that’s exactly how your body sees them. Similarly, with carbohydrates. I cringe when I hear something about “low-carb” diets. There is an immense difference between the carbohydrates in a serving of say, broccoli, and the carbohydrates in a Snickers bar. The best term I’ve heard to describe the Snickers-type simple carbohydrates is “carbage,” which I fully agree should be avoided!

Check out the fat and the calories

Processed, fast and restaurant foods are often laden with salt, sugar and fat, and all taste great for that very reason! As I progressed down the industrial-sugar-avoidance pathway, I found that the added sugar was oftentimes totally unnecessary taste-wise and was added only to increase weight and profits. I should clarify here that the human body sees fructose in fruit (does not produce hyperglycemia) quite differently than industrial sugar (does produce hyperglycemia), and there is no upper limit of safety on fruit consumption or type, even in diabetics.1,2 Please be aware that even healthy plant fats such as nuts, seeds and avocados are still fats, and are best enjoyed in small quantities. My very-flexible rule for myself is no more than 12 nuts each day, and 2 avocados per week. I arrived at the personal and somewhat subjective number of 12 nuts per day as it seemed to be the minimum needed to show benefit in several studies. You can work out the number that best works for you!

Evaluate nutrients

On average, plants have 64 times more antioxidants than animal products. The measure of antioxidant value is the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) number. The least expensive, common antioxidant is ground cloves, with an ORAC of 277,300 mmol/100 g, and for comparison, chicken is 0.5-1.3 Even if one doesn’t go fully whole-plant-based and still consumes some animal protein, studies have shown disease improvement with increasing plant intake alone.4

Watch for misleading food labels

As stated above, there are 75+ words for “sugar” which are not sugar, such as “organic cane syrup,” “ethyl maltol,” and “Florida crystals.”5 I’ve noticed an increasing use of the term “organic” lately. It seems that someone in marketing thought throwing the word “organic” in front of just about anything makes it healthy. It does not. Use the calorie count of the food to help clue you in to the presence of industrial sugar. The calorie count of sugar-free pasta sauce is generally in the order of 50-70 calories per serving, whereas the calorie count of the sugar-laden varieties are higher, often at 100-130 calories per serving.

And finally

Perhaps the best quotes to aid your grocery store decision-making are these two, from Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t eat it” and “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


  1. Lustig R. H. (2013). Fructose: it’s “alcohol without the buzz”. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(2), 226-235.
  2. Petta, S., Marchesini, G., Caracausi, L., et al (2013). Industrial, not fruit fructose intake is associated with the severity of liver fibrosis in genotype 1 chronic hepatitis C patients. Journal of hepatology, 59(6), 1169-1176.
  3. Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010;9:3. Published 2010 Jan 22.
  4. Carmody JF, Olendzki BC, Merriam PA, Liu Q, Qiao Y, Ma Y. A novel measure of dietary change in a prostate cancer dietary program incorporating mindfulness training. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(11):1822-1827.
  5. https://www.myketopal.com/post/there-are-75-words-for-sugar-some-sound-harmless-some-science-y (accessed 11/1/22)