I am sure you have seen words on food packages that read, “low-fat, gluten free, or zero calories.” Do these terms make a food healthier than foods that contain fat, gluten, or calories? How can you be sure you are choosing the best foods for you and your family?
Nutrition Labels at a Glance
When you first flip around that cereal box or loaf of bread, I am sure your eyes shift to the calories. The calories are most looked at because they are typically in large and bolded font. Calories are often looked down upon because I am sure one time or another you were told that calories are BAD. In fact, the opposite is true.
Calorie is a fancy word for energy, and our bodies need energy to survive. Weight gain happens when we put more energy into our bodies than we are exerting, but consuming energy is important.
Looking at the calories on a package can be a helpful tool. It can ensure you are getting enough fuel or can help you be cautious of excess calories. If you want to know how many calories are in the food you are eating, be sure to not only look at the caloric amount, but also the serving size.
For example, you have a bag of chips with your sandwich for lunch. Medium sized chip bags can contain 2-4 servings per bag. You may think, “150 calories is not bad at all!” Then you realize there are four servings per bag and now you just consumed 600 calories worth of Cheetos. Plus your sandwich and drink.
Always check the serving size when examining a nutrition label. This is going to be helpful when analyzing macronutrients, not just calories.
Have you ever heard of the term “Counting Macros?” This simply means keeping track of every carbohydrate, protein, and fat that you eat. Carbs, proteins, and fats are nutrients that make up the vast majority of what we eat in food. Hence the name, macronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are found in much smaller quantities in food so they are labeled micronutrients.
When you count macros, you weigh all of your food to get the most accurate measurement of each nutrient you consume. You can figure out your body’s macronutrient needs through Google or a medical professional. They may not be 100% accurate, but they will be pretty close.
How do macronutrients relate to nutrition labels? Each label lists macronutrient amounts per serving. Two tablespoons of peanut butter may contain 16 grams of fat, 8 grams of carbohydrates, and 7 grams of protein. This is helpful if you are looking to reduce your intake of certain macronutrients. Peanut butter is high in fat, so you may want to reduce your intake if you are looking to lower your fat consumption. When counting macros, you can use the information on nutrition labels to help you accurately track quantities.
Now if you are like me, you do not have the time or desire to weigh out all your food and count every bite before eating. You are just trying to figure out how to choose healthier foods to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight! When it comes to reading nutrition labels there are three things to consider.
1. What are you wanting from this food?
Ask yourself what you are wanting from the food item you are choosing. For bread, are you looking for bread with high protein content or low carbohydrate content? Maybe you want a cereal that has more fiber and lower sugar. You might want to choose a yogurt with higher protein.
If you know what you are wanting from specific foods, you can compare nutrition labels to determine which product you will choose.
2. Labels are trying to sell
What do I mean by that? Every product wants to be sold. Labels are designed to make you want to buy one product over another. If a company knows that people these days are wanting healthier options, they will start producing and labeling products as lite, low fat, or fat free. While these options can be a healthy choice, you as a buyer should be aware that these foods may not be very different from the full fat or non-lite options.
Peanut butter is one of my favorite examples of label deception. Many peanut butter jar labels now say gluten free. Peanut butter has always been gluten free; this is not anything new. Now that gluten free diets are more prevalent, many companies have decided to add gluten free to their labels in hopes that consumers will buy their product over one that does not say gluten free.
For salad dressings, be aware that labels that say “lite” could be very similar to the regular dressings. Also, many low fat options often have higher amounts of sugar to make up for the lower fat content. Producers know we consumers like flavor! When the fat is removed from a product, more salts and sugars are added so consumers continue to buy it.
3. Foods with added salts and sugars alter your taste bud sensitivity
Have you ever seen the photos with a plate of fruit and a caption saying “NATURE’S CANDY?” Did you roll your eyes and think about how much you love actual candy? We consume foods that have SO MUCH SUGAR, our bodies and our taste buds have become insensitive to the natural sweetness of real food.
Fruits and vegetables have sugar in them. Carrots and corn are high sugar containing vegetables. The sugar in veggies is much lower than the sugar in your sour gummy worms or that Snickers Bar. Almonds and cashews are a fantastic source of fiber and fat, but we’ve added loads of sugar and salt to them making them taste better, while also making them less nutritious.
The best thing you can do for your body is choosing real foods. Real foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains, dairy, and beans also provide the body with a lot of good nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Buy fresh fruits and vegetables rather than canned. Canned produce typically has added salts and sugars. If you want a healthy salad dressing, make your own at home. Combine olive oil and vinegar to add a healthy fat to your salad. Check nutrition labels for sugar content in foods. Compare the sugar in two containers of Greek yogurt and choose the one with less sugar. The more you expose your body to real foods, the less addicted it is to sugar.
Reading nutrition labels means you are considerate of what you are putting into your body. Labels help you choose foods that are the best option for you. Check the label before placing the item in your cart, and let’s be thoughtful consumers together.