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February 4, 2020

Nutrition Labels Are Changing: What to Know about the New FDA Guidelines

Nutrition Labels Are Changing: What to Know about the New FDA Guidelines

Beginning this year, food manufacturers will be required to start phasing in a new version of the food label (officially the “Nutrition Facts Label”) on packaged food and beverages. Though the label’s “improvements” will likely be helpful for some people, these changes may present new difficulties for individuals struggling with issues around food and eating. Here is an overview of what is changing and what to look out for.

Serving Size to Stand Out More

The panel that contains both serving size and servings per container will stand out more in a larger and/or bold type. Also, some of the serving sizes themselves will change to better reflect an amount commonly consumed.

Both of these changes may make it more difficult to use the Nutrition Facts Label. Remember, the serving size reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink. It is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink. Working with your dietitian or other professional can help determine the type, amount, and frequency of different foods that support your own body’s needs. Alternatively, if you are practicing intuitive eating, you are using your hunger/fullness cues to help you select and consume the amount that feels right. Ultimately, the information you are looking for is in your body, not on a label.

Calories to Be More Visible

The label’s calories section will also stand out more, again due to being both in larger type and bolded. This will likely cause people the most stress. There is so much emphasis, judgment, and anxiety associated with this word and what it has come to symbolize. It is important to remember that a calorie is simply a unit of measurement, like a ruler you might use to measure length. If you are building a shelf, for example, you might need a board that is 24 inches and one that is 30 inches; one board is not better than the other, it just serves a different purpose. The same is true with calories in food. Calories are a unit of measure for energy, and energy gives us life! Our bodies (and brains!) must have energy on a regular basis in order to function at full capacity.

The “Calories from Fat” statement will also be removed. It was shown not to be useful to people making food decisions. I would add it was also not helpful for people struggling with judgments about fat, so I am glad to see it gone from this section.

“Added Sugars” Line to Be Added

This is another change that will likely not be helpful for people struggling with distortions around food and eating, especially the need to eat only “clean” or “healthy” foods. For these people, the “added sugars” line may be translated as a black-and-white issue: good food vs. bad food. This additional information can be put into context by either consulting with your eating disorder professional and remembering that sugar is not inherently “bad,” but, like everything, fits into a healthy diet.

Different Nutrients to Be Listed

This section will now include the amount and percentage of Vitamin D and of potassium in that serving of food, as a way to highlight the need to get adequate amounts in your diet. It will no longer list this information for Vitamins A and C, which most Americans tend to consume at adequate levels.

Unsure of What This Means for You?

If you are not working with a dietitian or another professional with whom you can have this discussion, consider asking yourself the following questions about food labels:

  1. Why does it feel important to look at the label? What do you think is driving your desire for those numbers?
  2. How will the label’s information affect you? What has been your experience in the past? Has it truly been helpful?
  3. What will you do with that information? Is it needed for recovery purposes or does your eating disorder want it?
  4. Have you been advised to avoid or limit your use of food labels? If so, think back about why and take that into consideration.

The nutritional information on food packages is not going away. In fact, this is an example that there will be more emphasis on getting this information out to consumers. Just remember: this new Nutrition Facts Label is really nothing more than just facts, data, or information that can be helpful when used to promote overall health and well-being. Try to make sure that, if used, the labels support you and your efforts to return to a positive relationship with food, not to reinforce disordered thoughts or judgments.


Hilmar Wagner headshot

Hilmar Wagner, MPH, RDN, CD

Hilmar Wagner is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian (CD) in the state of Washington. Hilmar joined the Emily Program in 2006, and currently serves as the Training Coordinator for Nutrition Services and Clinical Outreach Specialist. In this role he initiates and coordinates training of new dietetic staff, dietetic interns and continuing education for nutrition services for all Emily Program locations. He has presented on a wide range of nutrition topics at local, regional and national conferences. Hilmar received his Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in the field of eating disorders for the past 12 years. Hilmar has extensive experience working with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in both individual and group settings. He has a particular interest in mindfulness and body-centered approaches to eating disorder recovery.

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