Pushing a grocery cart down an aisle may have your mouth watering at the thoughts of your next meal or late night snack, however, those happy thoughts might be met with frustration as you try to read and compare nutritional labels to determine what the healthier choice is for your family. Required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on most packaged foods and beverages, nutritional labels provide information about macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) which are the calorie-counting nutrients, and micronutrients (basically everything else). While these numbers can help you get a good idea of the calories and composition of the food you are eating, we are a society filled with conflicting information which makes the labels confusing for many. Research shows 80% of Americans have found conflicting nutritional data and 59% of shoppers doubt the choices they are making in the supermarket. People can read the calorie content, but they don’t understand where the calories really come from, and how to tell if they are high quality. Just because something is low calorie doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The last part of the “LifeStyle Rehab” series will focus on pointing out the most important things to look for on food labels, so you can effectively make the best choices.
1. INGREDIENT LIST
I would say, by far, the most important thing you’ll read on any food label is the ingredients list. Most pre-packaged foods have an ingredients list in weight order, from biggest to the smallest. So if the first few ingredients contain saturated fat – like cream, butter, or cheese – or sugars, syrups, or fruit juice, it’s worth bearing in mind that these make up the largest proportion of that food.
No matter if something is low fat, low carb, high in fiber or protein, it doesn’t matter if the ingredients are highly processed. Most people don’t understand that highly processed ingredients can wreck your digestion, may be genetically modified, and can be toxic to your body. I tell my clients to follow the “first five” rule. If you don’t know what the first five ingredients are, chances are you don’t need to purchase it. Stick to whole foods and ingredients you recognize.
2. SERVING SIZE/CALORIE COUNT
Confession; it will forever pain me to hear someone say something like ‘this ice cream must be healthy, it’s only 100 calories.’ We as a nation have been taught to look at calories in the food we eat, and nothing else. A “serving size” is a measured amount of food, but most people fail to realize the importance of servings “PER CONTAINER”. For example; if a small container of ice cream had a serving size of one cup and a calorie count of 250, but there are two servings per container, you’ll be consuming 500 calories on that snack. Pay attention to calories as a means of accountability in staying within a healthy calorie range. I encourage clients who have had issues staying within serving sizes to buy individual packaging in snack foods or buy snack size bags and go ahead and pre-portion foods to make them easily accessible and keep you from derailing your calories for the day.
Text box: Although every person’s daily caloric intake is individual, based on their weight, personal goals and needs, nutrition experts estimate that average daily consumption at each meal should be broken down somewhere in the range of 300-400 calories for breakfast and 500-700 calories each for lunch and dinner.
I fully believe (as it relates to weight and cellular health) that the most important item of all things to look for on food labels is the sugar content. Sugar is by far the most detrimental thing you can consume for your health. It leads more people to gain weight, develop food addictions, mood disorders, high levels of inflammation in the body, acne, chronic gut issues, and more. Free sugars include all sugars that are added to foods as well as sugars in fruit juices (these must now be listed on the food labels with the new FDA guidelines). Be mindful that sugar can sometimes be disguised under other names:
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Anything ending in “ose” (fructose, glucose, dextrose, and maltose)
Text box: American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 9 tsp (36g) of sugar in a day and women no more than 6 tsp (25g).
As someone who trains individuals to get healthy and build muscle, I personally feel that protein content is one of the most important things to look at on the label, due to how little people often consume. Protein is important because it helps stabilize your blood sugar longer, increases satiety of your appetite, lowers the glycemic index of foods, and can help boost metabolism. Optimally you want to look for foods that will have at least five grams of protein per serving.
5. CARBOHYDRATES & FIBER
Sugar, fiber, and other carbs all fall under the carbohydrate category, and they all affect your insulin differently. Fiber works to slow down digestion, regulate blood sugar, and can even aid in weight loss. Because it goes completely undigested in the body, it is calorie free. Sugar has no fiber and is purely glucose, fructose, or sucrose, which means it will get processed immediately in your bloodstream and is excreted even quicker, which raises your glycemic index faster, your insulin levels spike fast, and cause your cells to store fat. As soon as it leaves your bloodstream you become tired and crave more sugar to pick that blood sugar level back up to where it was. See the vicious cycle here? It’s why food companies find all kinds of ways to add sugar to food – the body becomes dependent on it. Text: The “nutritional tea” rage that you see so many drinking is often marketed as “sugar free”. Nothing is sugar free. It is simply sweetened with added sugars or chemical alternatives that still wreak havoc on your body. Take a look at your carbohydrates and see how much of those carbs come from fiber. The more, the better. Optimally, any high carbohydrate food like grains or fruit should have at least five grams of fiber per serving.
I encourage my clients not to fear fat, just be aware of the type of fat you are consuming. Looking under the fat grams on a label you’ll see a breakdown of mono, poly, and saturated fats (not all labels will list all three, but many do). If trans fats are listed, you will always want to keep them at zero or low as possible. Optimally, you want the majority of your fats to be monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats are fine, but avoid those in the form of vegetable or processed oils like canola.
Monounsaturated fats from raw nuts, seeds, avocados, dark chocolate, and olive oil are some of the best choices you can make. Saturated fats that come from plant food are also good for you and have been found good for your heart and cholesterol.
Different text box: If you buy any kind of processed foods, be sure to stay clear of anything with trans fats. After that, it depends more on where the fats come from than the total fat content, to decide if the food is healthy or unhealthy.
Salt and sugar are both added to EVERYTHING these days! Why? Because they make food taste better, leaving you wanting to eat more – which means more profits for food companies. Sodium is NOT the enemy. In fact, the body needs it to stay balanced – just not in the form of highly processed foods. Real salt, or high mineral salt, is the type of sodium your body wants.
High mineral salt comes from high quality sea salt, Himalayan salt, black salt, or other unrefined types of salt.
If the ingredients label simply says “salt”, I encourage you to keep looking for something of higher quality. You want the sodium count of your foods to be less than 200 mg (or preferably 100 milligrams) per serving from processed foods. Even better, buy whole foods with no added salt, along with whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.