Whether you are just beginning your health journey or have been on this path for a while, you have probably heard about the importance of reading food labels somewhere along the line. But did anyone ever take the time to really explain it to you? What should you really be focusing on? No matter your health goals, understanding what is in the food you are buying is important. So I’ve broken it down for you and provided you with 10 key items to know next time you hit the grocery store.
- Serving Size: How many servings are you actually consuming in the food you eat? It is easy to lose track (especially with drinks) and have too much. If you read your label you’d be amazed by how small the servings are on popular food items such as cereal, potato chips, and ice cream. Keep in mind that all of the information on your food label is for 1 serving, so if you have more than 1 serving, note how those numbers will change.
- Calories: A calorie is the measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. Keep in mind that not all calories are created equal. For example, an apple, which is about 100 calories, is much healthier for you than a 100-calorie snack pack. Focus on quality, not quantity. If you are aware of the type of calories you are putting into your body, you will find that calorie counting is not necessary.
- Fat: There are a few different types of fats you will see on your food label –
- Saturated Fat: This type of fat most commonly comes from animal sources (meat & dairy) and raises the level of bad (LDL) cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends 5-6% of daily calories should come from saturated fat, though many Americans eat way more than this.
- Trans Fat: This type of fat is created through the hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They are inexpensive to produce, last a long time, and give foods a desirable taste and texture (a win-win for food companies!). Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Bottom line – avoid buying foods with partially hydrogenated oils if they are listed as an ingredient on your label!
- Unsaturated Fat: There are two types of unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated are omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, which are essential to and can’t be made by our bodies. Omega-3 fats are the most important and are found in high amounts in walnuts, flaxseed, and salmon. Common foods with monounsaturated fat are olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
- Cholesterol: There are two types of cholesterol, good (HDL) and bad (LDL). HDL cholesterol helps carry cholesterol away from organs and to the liver where it can be removed. LDL cholesterol is linked with an increased risk in heart disease. Raise your levels of HDL cholesterol through exercise, eating fish and other omega-3 fatty acids, avocados, coconut oil, limiting your intake of refined sugars, and not smoking.
- Sodium: The daily intake recommendation of sodium is 1,500 milligrams, but Americans commonly get way more than this due to the large amount of pre-packaged foods we eat, which are high in sodium. Too much sodium in your diet can lead to increased blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Decrease your sodium intake by limiting the amount of salt you add to your food and eating less pre-packaged, processed food.
- Sugar: You will notice that there is no % daily value measurement next to sugar on your food label, which I personally think is preposterous, but that is a topic for another post. There are some natural sugars (lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit) that are fine to eat, but steer clear of the added stuff. There are many aliases for sugar on your ingredients list such as dextrose, fructose, honey, malt syrup, rice syrup, sucrose, xylose, molasses, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, maltose, agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, and caramel, to name a few. The recommended daily intake of sugar for women is 25 grams (100 calories) and for men is 37.5 grams (150 calories). This is not very much. See a past post from my Sugar Series on ways to decrease your sugar consumption.
- Carbohydrates: It’s important to note that the type of carbs you eat is way more important than the amount. I cringe inside when people talk of eliminating carbs from their diet. Carbs are an important part of a healthy diet and provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy to support bodily functions and physical activity. They also provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Limit refined carbs and focus more on whole grains such as whole wheat bread, quinoa, millet, rye, and barley. Carbohydrates are also found in vegetables, fruits, and beans.
- Fiber: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that can’t be digested by the body. It helps regulate blood sugar and hunger levels. High fiber foods include beans, berries, whole grains, peas, greens (kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), nuts and seeds, squash, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
- Artificial Colors and Flavors: Artificial coloring is everywhere, especially in food marketed to children. Common kinds include Yellow #5, Blue #1 and Red #40. There are a lot of debates about the effect of these products, but I believe that anything artificial in your body is going to have a negative effect. Studies have linked artificial flavors to ADHD and hyperactivity in children. Many dyes commonly used in the U.S. have been banned in Europe.
- Ingredients List: Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order by their quantity in the food, with the first being the highest. A good rule of thumb is to avoid foods with ingredients you don’t understand. Chances are it is not natural! Also, the lower the number of ingredients the better. Better yet, stick with foods that have no ingredients lists at all! Those are the best for you and will keep your body happy and healthy.
Peace, love and healthy eating,