Healthy Habits: Reading Food Labels

One healthy habit you should try to start doing more is reading food labels. You can’t always trust the front of a box when it says ‘fat free’ or ‘low cal.’ You need to know what you are consuming and the only way to know that is to do a bit of investigation.

Ingredients List. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The ingredients with the largest amount of weight are listed first. This is helpful for individuals with food sensitivities and other dietary restrictions. It is also valuable in seeing what is actually in your food. If you are eating something you believe to be healthy and there are over fifteen ingredients, it’s likely not that healthy. The more ingredients in a product, the more processed that product is. Nothing organic and clean should have lots of strange ingredients in it. No food should have sugar listed as one of the main ingredients. If you don’t know an ingredient on the food label, do not buy the item. You should always know what you are putting into your body.

Serving Size. Pay attention to the serving size (amount for one serving) and how many servings are in the food package. Know how much you are consuming. If you eat double the serving size, you also consume double all the nutrition and calories.

Daily Values. 5 percent or less is on the low range. You should aim for low percentage of daily value for total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. 20 percent or more is high. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. You do not need to consume more than 100 percent of any nutrient unless notified to do so by your doctor.

Sodium. Surprisingly, some foods that don’t taste salty can still have high amounts of sodium. So, don’t let taste be your guide. Read the label. High levels of sodium can give you high blood pressure. If foods have the option of coming salted or unsalted, you should always choose unsalted. If you really crave that salt, you can add it in yourself. That way you at least know how much additional sodium you are consuming.

Carbohydrates. You DO need some carbohydrates in your diet. Many people try to eliminate them completely, but I would never advise you do to that. Carbs give you energy. You need carbs to survive, especially if you are working out. Without carbohydrates you will find getting through an intense workout nearly impossible. But, you do still need to watch how many carbs you are eating a day and the kinds of carbs you are consuming.  It’s wise to stay away from the “starchy” carbs like white bread and pasta.  Instead go for whole grains, sprouted breads, quinoa, and even popcorn.

Sugar. Keep in mind that sugars listed on the nutrition label include both natural sugars (like the kind in fruit) and those added to a food or drink. Always check the ingredients list for specifics on added sugars, and make sure they are not at the top of the list! Stay away from artificial sugars. Artificial sugars actually leave you craving more sugar after consuming.

Fiber. This is one type of carbohydrate that you do want to consume! Fiber does not raise blood glucose. In fact, the presence of fiber can slow down the impact of other carbohydrates in a meal. Fiber helps keep you full and regulates digestion. Aim for higher percentages of daily value of fiber. If there is a large amount of carbohydrates in a serving, make sure there is also a substantial amount of fiber. The non-fiber carbohydrates are typically that “starchy” kind that give the nutrient a bad rep.

Fat. Saturated fats and trans fats are linked to increased risk of certain chronic diseases. Because of this, you should limit these ingredients. Pay attention to calories from fat. If 50 percent of the calories are fat, that is getting a bit high. There is such a thing as “healthy fats” like the kind found in nuts. But, you really need to pay attention to the serving size when you consume healthy fats. Eating too much of the healthy kinds of fat is still too much (just like everything else).

Protein. Foods higher in protein will keep you full and help you build muscle when paired with exercise. Protein is important; however, you do not need to eat mass amounts of protein a day. Eating too much of any nutrient is not benefiting you at all. Any excess amount of protein that your body is not using will turn in to fat. The same goes for every other nutrient. So keep track of how much protein you are eating, many American’s eat more than their daily need. This is why you don’t always see a daily value percentage listed for protein on food labels. You can calculate your target protein intake online and keep your daily protein consumption in that range. Try out this calculator [x]

Calories. If you are trying to lose weight, counting calories is quite simple. To lose weight, you just need to eat fewer calories than your body burns. However, calories are not the most important part of a food label, in my opinion. Sometimes the calorie count can trick you into thinking a food item is good for you when it really isn’t. Have you ever looked at yogurt nutrition labels? Typically the “low cal” brands are packed with sugar or worse, packed with artificial sugar. There is a difference between a nutritious 300-calorie smoothie and a 0-calorie diet soda. One is good for you and one is not, I will let you figure out which one you should stay away from. To know how many calories you should be eating a day you need to calculate your BMR. Use a BMR calculator online or talk to a registered dietician to figure out how many calories you should have a day.

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