The key to healthy eating is learning how to decode nutrition labels. Food companies use popular claims and eye-catching promises that are deceiving if not entirely untrue. Just because a product says “organic”, “fat-free”, “sugar-free”, etc. does not mean it is healthy. Usually in order for those claims to be true, the makers had to sacrifice something else like higher processed carbs or calories making it worse for you than if you went for the original! The point is reading the nutrition facts can be like trying to read Swahili, and food companies are taking full advantage of consumers who fall for the gimmicks. Here is the breakdown of what to look for so you don’t fall for them:
1. Serving size. Portion sizes are likely half, if not less, than that of what we expect or are used to. The serving size listed will give you everything listed below that. If you eat two serving sizes, you have to double everything else. That means 1 tbsp of nut butter (the average serving size) is about the size of both thumbs. A lot of people eat 3,4 or even 5 times this amount on their toast.
2. Total Fat. This is tricky because some fat is good for you. This is where you need to use common sense. A half cup of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream has 24 grams of fat and a medium sized avocado has 30 grams of fat. Which is better for you? Obviously the avocado because it consists of monosaturated fat which is the healthy kind. The key here is moderation, good fat is only good if you eat it in small amounts. Bad fat is just better left on the shelf.
3. Sodium. The USDA recommends we eat no more than 2,400 mgs of sodium a day. That equals about a teaspoon. A Chipotle Mexican Grilled Chicken Burrito has 2,656 mgs of sodium alone! Too much sodium will dehydrate you and actually trigger your brain to encourage you to eat more! Keep this in check by flavoring your food with herbs and spices rather than table salt.
4. Carbohydrates. If you are looking at a packaged food item you want to keep these moderately low. High processed carbohydrate food is found in “white stuff” (white bread, pasta and rice). They can also be found in snack bars, cereals, beverages, among many other products so watch out. I like to keep these below 15-20 grams, and the more you become aware of it, the more shocked you will be.
5. Sugar. Not all sugars are bad (there are natural sugars found in milk, fruits, etc that are essential to your body), so you need to look at the ingredients to differentiate the good and the bad. The ones to avoid are Sucrose, cane juice and high-fructose corn syrup. You should stay away from anything that contains 5 g or more of these per serving.
6. Protein and fiber. These components are an essential part of your diet and help to keep you full longer. The higher the fiber count typically means the healthier the food, especially since the average American doesn’t get their DRA (Daily Recommended Amount) of either of these in their diets.
(P.S. Did you notice I skipped over Calories? Funny, you probably thought this would be first on the list and yet it didn’t even make it?!? The amount of calories in general doesn’t mean a whole lot when you factor in the others. If the calories are coming from natural healthy food they will be used as energy. Of course if you have to many they will be stored as fat so you do have to acknowledge them, but as far as I am concerned, they are a waste of space on the label.)