When you are cruising the grocery store aisles, you probably flip over a few items to scrutinize their nutrition labels. But do you understand what you’re looking at? Most people don’t! I try to educate my patients on what to look for and the government is working on updating the label to reflect today’s nutritional concerns and include more realistic serving sizes, but until that happens, use the diagram included with this article to help make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy, balanced diet. Also, remember these helpful tips:
- Nutrition information is provided for one serving of a food or beverage. Many products contain more than one serving. If a serving size is one cup, and you eat two cups (or the whole package), then you must double (or more than double) the calories, fat, sugar, and other ingredients to get an accurate estimate of how much you’ve eaten. If you’ve eaten a smaller portion than what is on the label, calculate accordingly.
- Pay special attention to the amount of sugars (including carbohydrates) in one serving. This is especially important if you have diabetes (or other health concerns) that require you to monitor sugar intake or the glycemic index of foods.
- Check out the amount of fat, especially saturated fat, in one serving. Fats contribute to many chronic health problems. Trans fats are also labeled because they are known to contribute to “bad cholesterol,” which contributes to heart disease. Choose foods that are low in these fats. However, some foods, like nuts, have high fat content, but the source of fat is actually good for the body–it’s not a saturated or a trans fat.
- Be aware that “0” does not mean zero! It means less than 5% per serving!
- In addition to understanding the nutrition label, take a look at the list of ingredients. If you cannot pronounce the words that are listed on a food label, it’s likely coming from chemicals and processed (unnatural) elements that are not healthy for the body. Some of the items you want to avoid include:
- Preservatives including BHA, BHT, brominated products
- GMO – genetically modified organisms, common in corn and soy derivatives
- Xanthan gum
- Hydrocarbons (pesticides PCB, DDE, DDT)
- Soy and cottonseed oil
- Dyes (e.g., yellow dye no. 5, tartrazine)
- MSG – monosodium glutamate (common in canned foods and Asian cooking)
- Food allergens – if you or family members have a known allergy to peanuts, wheat, soy, or gluten
If you are in a hurry and can’t take the time to read labels, do your best to avoid packaged (bag, box, or bottle) foods. Instead, buy fresh foods and “eat a rainbow everyday” (e.g., fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt). Also, choose water, tea, or juices with no sugar added. For more colorful food ideas, you can like my Facebook page!
Finally, pay attention to what’s happening in the news … in July 2015 the government proposed a new nutrition information panel for food labeling. The public is invited to provide comment.