Most of us feel lost in translation when it comes to reading nutrition labels on packaged foods in the supermarkets. First of all, it is important to say that some of the healthiest foods out there, like fresh fruits and vegetables, or lean proteins such as fish, chicken and lentils don’t come with labels. The nutritious benefits of those products are very straightforward and clear. So try to eat as many fresh, unlabelled foods and avoid those with nutrition labels as by definition they are packaged and more heavily processed than fresh foods.
However, eating exclusively fresh foods is challenging and we all end up consuming at least some packaged food items. So how do we learn to read the labels properly? How can we compare two or more packaged items and make an informed, healthy decision?
Firstly, be aware that the nutrition label may not reflect the content of the entire package. There is often more than a single serving in one container. So the first thing we have to check is the serving size and then start reading all the other nutrients and specifications based on it.
The next thing to keep an eye on is the total calories content, especially if your goal is weight loss. However, the calories are not always what matters as some foods like nuts, avocados and coconut oil for example, are rich in calories, but also very healthy and all-natural. The same way not all sugars and fats are created equal, calories are not either. It is the quality and the energy release of those calories that matters.
The next thing to look at is the dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is important for maintaining good digestion and gastrointestinal health, stabilizing blood glucose levels and delaying the hunger-return. So, choosing foods that are rich in fiber is usually a smart thing to do.
Next, we want to look at the sugars. It has been proven that the extensive consumption of sugar is closely related to the modern epidemics of obesity and diabetes that we are facing. So consuming less refined sugar, which usually occurs in packed foods, is important if you want to stay healthy and fit. To convert the amount of sugar in grams to teaspoons, just divide by four. And be aware that some of the most loaded with sugars foods are in fact children products and foods that are commonly considered healthy, such as cereals, fruit-yogurts and granola bars.
The total amount and breakdown of the fat content in the food is next. Bare in mind, that fats, just like sugars, are not made equal. The fats in packed, processed foods, which are very often saturated and even trans fats, are less healthy than the naturally occurring unsaturated fats found in natural, plant foods like avocados or nuts for instance. So when looking into the fats amount we also have to check what part are naturally occurring unsaturated fats and what part are saturated, and trans fats. Here is a simple rule to follow:
Natural, unsaturated fats can and should be consumed regularly
Saturated fats can be eaten in reasonable amounts
Trans fats should be avoided at all times.
Salt is the next thing you should check. Choosing foods with less sodium is also a good idea given the fact that packaged foods often contain much more added salt than the less processed versions of those foods.
Last but not least, you should check the labels for ‘hidden’ added vitamins and minerals. When the vitamins and the minerals in a product are naturally occurring than you are free to consume it. But when they are artificially added by further processing the product they become damaging for your health. The truth is that some unhealthy foods have added vitamins and minerals because the manufacturers of those foods know that nutrition claims tend to increase sales to the health conscious consumer.
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