Understanding Food Labels

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When I'm grocery shopping, I'm "that girl" who stands in the aisle, whipping boxes over one at a time to compare the nutritional values on the back. Why? Because, unfortunately, today's consumer-centric market has made food marketing very misleading. Not all food was made equal... and the subtle differences are actually not so subtle in the grand scheme of nutrition and fitness. If I want vanilla yogurt,  I'm comparing the calories, sugars, and proteins in each package, looking for the perfect vanilla yogurt... which, for the record, would be low calorie and low sugar, yet high protein. It's all a balancing act. To find out how I balance my diet, read about my nutrition methodology here.

I frequently (over)share random tips and tidbits about how to evaluate nutritional packaging quickly and smartly, so that you're getting the "best" of every food item you purchase. Yet, it's understandably difficult to keep all of this in mind as you're perusing the tempting aisles of the supermarket.

Here's a go-to list of easy tips, all in one place, that will help you balance your shopping list and the scale!

Image Courtesy Of Kelly Ryder (See it here).

Look for low... calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, sodium, sugar
Look for high... dietary fiber, protein, vitamins and nutrients

  • When you're evaluating ANYTHING, be sure to take note of the serving size and how many servings are in each container. For example, one bag of chips may say it's only 120 calories on the back. This might seem like a score... until you realize that there are 16 servings in the bag and the serving sizes are only 10 chips. That means that, instead of getting a whole bag for 120 calories, you only get 10 chips for 120 calories... and, if you eat the whole bag, you've eaten 1,920 calories! Whoa, that's a big difference.
  • Low Calories & Calories from Fat... If you're comparing two similar foods (for example, two jars of peanut butter), you'll probably notice how many calories is in each 2 tbsp serving. don't forget to take note of the calories from fat, as well. Both jars may have 190 calories per serving, but one may have more calories from fat than the other. This may be because of a higher oil content, for example.
  • Look for Lower Saturated Fat... You do need some fat/saturated fat in your diet... but, today, most of us are already getting as much (or more) as we need without even trying. Try to limit your intake of fats and saturated fats whenever possible!
  • Avoid Trans Fat Like the Plague... It is not good for you at all and has actually been linked to some nasty health risks.
  • Watch Your Sodium (Keep It Low)... Similar to fats, we're all probably getting more than enough sodium in our diets without even trying. Make sure to keep your sodium intake down by avoiding high sodium foods. Be extra cautious when evaluating "low calorie" or "low fat" foods, as these diet foods often make up for their lack of natural flavor by adding loads of sodium. If one cup of soup has 80% of your daily Sodium intake, it's not worth it - no matter how low calorie it is!
  • Watch Your Sugar (Keep It Low)... Diets high in sugar have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and cancer (yes, cancer thrives on sugar in the body). In fact, this 90 minute lecture by Robert H. Lustig of UCSF even argues that sugar is actually a toxic poison.
  • Watch Your Carbs (Moderate It)... You can't and shouldn't cut out carbohydrates all together... however, make sure you're not filling your cart with tons of high-carb items
  • Eat MORE Dietary Fiber... Fiber helps you feel full and lose weight while also lowering your cholesterol and helping you avoid diseases. Looking for more ways to add fiber to your diet? Read it here.
  • Eat MORE Protein... It speeds up your metabolism. It builds your muscles. Particularly with individuals who work out on a regular basis, protein is an essential building block for a fit and healthy life.
  • Eat MORE Vitamins... Technically, you can max out on vitamins and consume too many of them; however, given what's available today, that'd be pretty hard to do. Keep your eyes on the vitamin quotients of each food item and try to opt for higher-vitamin options.

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