Planning out your diet can seem tedious and straight up difficult if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. However, if you can understand the basics of reading nutrition labels, then you can start to make educated and healthier food choices for you and your family.
What are Food labels designed to do?
There are three main purposes for having manufacturers label our foods:
- 1- It gives basic product information, including the ingredients used, product weight or quantity, expiry dates, the grade or quality of the product, country it was made, manufacturer information and even website and phone numbers in case consumers wish to contact the companies.
- 2- To provide health, safety and nutrition information. This helps consumers know the nutritional information including macro and micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) in specific serving sizes and it also provides proper storing and handling practices for the product.
- 3- Lastly is a means for promoting and marketing the product. For example making claims such as “fat free” or “sugar free” Which is useless now, since after this you’ll have a better idea of what’s actually going into your food by actually reading the nutrition facts rather than relying on a marketing sales team to tell you whether the product is good for you.
The last point leads me to my next point, which is it’s not “what’s in/not in this” but “am I getting what I need and avoiding what I don’t”??
First off, you need to recognize that the nutrition labels only account for an individual averaging a 2000-calorie a day diet. Which can be confusing, since there is a high chance that you aren’t eating that many calories (more or less that is).
Most people will gain weight on this amount of calories, especially people who are sedentary.
So what are you looking for?
- serving size
- fat (grams); types of fat, especially saturated & trans fat (grams)
- carbs; sugar
- list of ingredients.
Just for reference:
1g Fat= 9calories
1g Carbs= 4calories
1g Protein= 4calories
Unfortunately people usually only look at the calories and fat content. When really, more of the story is where do those calories come from and what type of fat does it contain.
Figure out how many grams of Fat are there, and then figure out what percent of that fat makes up the total calories. THEN check to see what the majority of fat comprises those calories (saturated or otherwise).
Monosaturated= the Best Oils! omega-3 EFA oils. GOOD STUFF! Nut, seeds and fish oils,
Saturated= artery clogging and should be kept at a minimum; butter, whole milk, beef fat, palm kernel oil
Polyunsaturated= liquid at room temperature; sunflower, safflower and corn oils
Hydrogenated= trans fats, margarine, most processed baked goods, research suggested that it raises LDL (bad cholesterol)
Knowing what types of fats are in the foods you choose is what matters, not necessarily how much (although keeping the percentage of fat to 20% to 35% of the total energy is recommended according to the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (ADMR)).
When accounting for amounts of protein, first you need to figure out how much you need.
Generally speaking, Men training to maintain or build should aim for about 1.8-2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
Women’s building or maintaining should aim for 1.0-1.2g per kilogram of bodyweight
All of this also depends on lifestyle- active, sedentary, highly active athlete. Again, sedentary people can look to try to consume about 0.8g per kilogram of bodyweight.
Also keep in mind that the type of protein can also impact the amount of fats.
This is where ingredients become important to note. It is recommended that a person consumes 130g/day of carbohydrates in order to support daily activities, which accounts for only the amount of carbs needed to adequately supply glucose (the brains main energy supply) to the brain. Keeping this amount in mind, your total calories should be coming from roughly 45% to 65% carbohydrates with less than 25% of that coming from sugars. And this is what I meant when I said, NOW ingredients really start to matter.
North Americans tend to consume too many simple carbohydrates, and even though sugars that are chemically manufactured and those that are naturally occurring don’t differ, they don’t provide us with beneficial vitamins and minerals.
We know what simple carbs aren’t the best choices, but why? Well, here are a few reasons: tooth decay, hyperactivity in children (possible other development issues as well), increased unhealthy lipid levels in our blood, increasing risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Now when reading your nutrition labels, be sure to not get thrown by their wording. Sugar appears in many different forms with many different names. Here are a few different names that also mean Sugar- corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, malt, glucose, fructose, marshmallow, molasses, sorghum… etc.
Instead of simple sugars, choose foods with ingredients that are lower on the glycemic index (doesn’t spike blood sugar levels). These provide a slower more gradual release of insulin and don’t create as dramatic fluctuations in blood levels of insulin and glucose. These types of foods also provide much many more useful nutrients and fibre. Which leads me to the next item to look for when reading your food’s nutrition labels.
Fibre has a few different terms: Dietary Fibre, Functional Fibre and Total Fibre. We’ll touch on dietary fibre.
Soluble Fibre is a type of dietary fibre and functional fibre that absorbs in water and swell to form a gel. These fibres trap glucose and slow down their absorption into the blood. This is a good form of fibre for those with diabetes and for people with an irritable tummy like me. Soluble fibre can be found in fruit pectins (apples, bananas, grapefruit, oranges and strawberries), oatmeal, oat bran and legumes. As well they are found in commercial thickeners, likes jams.
Insoluble Fibre clings to water rather than absorbing into it. So this means that it helps the contents of the large intestine move more quickly which is great for preventing constipation. Insoluble fibre is found in vegetables and wheat. It also helps to bind to and carry cholesterol out of that body which can lower blood cholesterol levels. It also adds bulk to your poop.
You should be aiming to get between 25g and 30g of fibre daily. Any product that has more than 5g of fibre is considered High fibre.
Be sure to drink lots of water when consuming high fibre products.
Misleading Labels & Words:
This is where being aware of what marketing ploys companies are using to sell their product and make you think your choices are benefitting you and your family.
*“No Fat” or “Fat Free”- less than 0.5g fat per serving
“Lower” or “Reduced Fat”- less calories or fat than original version..
“Low Calories”- 1/3 of the calories from original
“No Calorie” or “Calorie Free”- less than 5calories per serving & likely packed with lots of fake stuff.
“Sugar Free”- less than 0.5g per serving
“Low Sodium”- less than 140mg per serving
“No Salt” or “Salt free”- less than 5mg per serving
“Baked, Not Fried”- lightly oiled, then baked in an oven.
*Be careful of the “Low Fat” phenomena, as it usually means High in Sugar. You have to replace the lost fat with something. What brings out flavor? Fat & Sugar!
Some other things to watch out for when Shopping & reading your Nutrition Labels:
– Sugar should be at the END of the ingredient list
– Salt should be in the middle or the end
– Unpronounceable ingredients should be questioned
– Enriched- means the original food was first stripped of its good stuff and then some of it was stuffed back in… totally defeating the purpose. Just avoid it.
-Fortified? Why not just get your vitamins and minerals from whole, reliable & identifiable sources like whole foods and a quality multivitamin?
-Over 20g of carbs, but less than 2 grams of fibre? Toss it. It’s packed with sugar.
-Protein sources where the Fat content is more than HALF the total calories.
– Avoid Hydrogenated ANYTHING!
Ideally everything would be written out plain and simple for us and we could all make super simple choices in the grocery store. However, companies make packaged foods in large, no, massive quantities to sell to stores. So in order to make sure that those food items can sit on a shelf without going rancid or bad they add chemicals and ingredients to them in order to increase their shelf life.
What you can do is at least educate yourself and understand what exactly you’re buying and feeding to your family.
In order to avoid confusion, choose fresh, whole foods that need to be eaten right away. The fewer the ingredients, the better!
Yes, it might make for a little more work to prepare, but aren’t the benefits of a happy and healthy family worth it?