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updated: 10/31/2012 10:04 AM

Ask the Nutritionist: Decifering food package labels

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Q. I'm confused. What do the Heart-Check marks, rating systems and other symbols on food packages and supermarket shelves mean?

A. Your confusion is understandable; there are a number of these systems, and they signify different things.

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The Heart-Check mark on food packages indicates that it meets criteria set by the American Heart Association. That criteria mostly focuses on the nutrients we're advised to cut down in our diets: saturated and trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. Keep in mind that the limits correspond to the standard serving size listed on the food package. Also to qualify, a food needs to supply at least 10 percent of the recommended Daily Value for one of six specific nutrients: vitamin A or C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber. Desserts are not eligible to receive a checkmark.

Just because a food does not carry the familiar red check mark does not necessarily mean it's unhealthy; participating food companies must pay a fee to cover program costs. This system places less emphasis on finding nutrient-rich foods than on helping us avoid negative influences.

You may also see shelf labeling systems based on grocery stores' own or other privately developed rating systems, such as Guiding Stars and NuVal. These systems award foods with stars or points calculated from complex formulas that evaluate a host of nutrients. These systems can provide a better indication of the foods' nutrients, but they don't necessarily match up with the biggest nutritional priorities for most Americans, such as eating more vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains and fewer high calorie foods.

The bottom line is that on-package and shelf-based rating systems can help flag foods worth checking out as healthy possibilities. But healthy choices ultimately promote your health only when put together in an overall balanced eating pattern.

Q. Some people say that pregnancy is a time when you can enjoy "eating for two" and not worry. Is it true that extra weight gain in pregnancy is easily lost?

A. Gaining enough weight is vital for a healthy pregnancy. However, studies show that women who gain beyond recommended amounts are more likely to retain at least 10 extra pounds compared to their pre-pregnancy weight a year after their baby's birth. In fact, excess weight may persist even many years later.

The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends a total of one to four-and-a-half pounds weight gain for the first three months of pregnancy. After that, recommended weight gain varies with a woman's pre-pregnancy weight. Total recommended gain is 28-40 pounds for underweight women, 25 to 35 pounds for those at a healthy weight, 15 to 25 pounds if overweight, or 11 to 20 pounds if obese.

So women should discuss weight gain goals with their doctor, as well as the types and amount of exercise safe for them during pregnancy.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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