Learn to decipher food labels. (Photo: NoDerog, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Part of eating a healthy diet is knowing what healthy is.
While that statement may sound strange, because it would seem obvious what “healthy” is, our food system and their marketing campaigns have made it very hard to decipher what is healthy versus unhealthy. Understanding how to read nutrition labels is one way that we can ensure that the foods we are choosing to eat are the healthiest choices.
First, I would like to say that the healthiest food choices are whole foods. Whole foods are best described as plant foods that are unprocessed or unrefined and include things such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (peas and beans). These foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber as well as being low in fat, sugar, and sodium. They are the biggest bang for your nutritional buck and more filling than other processed foods. Whole foods and low fat proteins are components of a great diet.
There are times when having a processed food is a choice that is needed or wanted. Here’s where understanding labels really helps. In 2016, the FDA announced a new nutritional label format. The label changes made some of the data easier to see, such as calories being put in a larger type. Serving sizes and recommended daily value percentages were updated. And the biggest, most helpful change in my opinion, was adding a section that broke down sugar into “total sugars” AND “added sugars.”
So what should be considered when deciding the healthfulness of a food, when looking at a food’s nutrition label? Here are the key components of the label to consider:
Serving size: Most people do not consider that what they would normally eat is not anywhere near what a true serving size is. Having a set of measuring spoons and cups on your counter to help you measure out portions ensures the appropriate quantity of food is consumed. This can help overeating and consuming too many calories, fat, or sugars.
Calories: Knowing the caloric impact of what you are going to eat is very important when trying to manage weight. When taking into account both serving size and total calorie consumption, most people decide that some processed foods just aren’t worth the calories.
Total fat/saturated fat/trans fat: The total fat section includes healthy, saturated, and trans fats. It is important that this number is relatively low. But it is more important that most of these fats come from healthy fats, little come from saturated fats, and none of them come from trans fats. The recommended daily allowance for saturated fats, given by the FDA, suggests that you have only a total of 20 grams per day. If divided up by three meals, that means approximately 6.5 grams per meal is recommended. Consider that when looking at a label for just one food.
Sodium: Sodium intake should be kept to 2300 milligrams per day. Again, if spread out over three meals, that would be roughly 766 milligrams per meal. Keeping foods in the low 100s would be ideal to stay within FDA guidelines.
Total carbs: Total carbs indicates what type of glycemic load the food will have. For people with diabetes, this is particularly important. The glycemic load of a food tells us the effect on blood glucose levels and the subsequent insulin response by the body. On a food label, the fiber content is listed directly under carbohydrates. A food that is higher in fiber indicates a food that has a lower glycemic load on the body. This is a good thing. Look for foods that have a small ratio of fiber to carbs; the higher the carbs, the higher the fiber desired. If the fiber level is low, look for a low carb level as well to indicate a healthier food choice.
Sugars/added sugars: The biggest change to the nutrition label is the addition of “added sugars.” This is a big win in my opinion. The quality of food, and intrusion of sugar in it, has drastically changed for the worse. Food producers have begun to use tricks like adding sugar alcohol to sweeten foods, therefore bypassing the addition to total sugars. With the new addition to this section, there can be a better understanding of when a food has natural sugars present versus added sugars. Many experts suggest that any added sugars are bad. The American Heart association recommends no more than 25 grams per day. Food for Thought: Some yogurts have at least half of that in one small cup, some more than that.
Protein: The protein section is pretty straight forward. It lists the total protein the food. The recommended allowance for women is 46 grams for the average woman, and 56 grams for the average sedentary male. For more information on this topic, please look for my previous article at greenbaypressgazette.com.
Kim Dart Elsing is a Greater Green Bay YMCA Personal Trainer, ACE Certified, Fitness Nutritional Specialist, Non-Diet Weight Management Certified, and Holistic Life Coach under the instruction of the Global Association of Holistic Psychotherapy. Reach her at 920-436-9570 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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