Have you ever noticed that a food label is generally only found on processed and packaged items? That is because whole foods – such as fruit, vegetables, fresh meat, and seafood – do not need a nutrition label since they do not contain any additional ingredients. It is wise to aim for a diet rich in these whole foods to limit your intake of processed and packaged items and support optimal health. However, should you find yourself short on time searching for a quick snack or meal, understanding the nutritional adequacy of your options will lead to better food choices. Although there have been, and will continue to be, revisions to the nutrition facts label, understanding it can help you make more informed food choices the next time you shop.
Serving Size: It is easy to overeat without careful attention to the serving size of a food item. For example, an item may contain 150 calories if only 1 serving is consumed but 900 calories if the entire box is consumed. The serving size is also important to consider as the quantities of each nutrient listed on the Nutrition Facts Label are in single serving amounts. So, if that same item has 200mg of sodium for a single serving, the entire box will provide you 1,200 mg. It is a good idea to steer clear of calorie-dense foods with little to offer in terms of nutritional value.
Calorie: A calorie is a measurement of thermal energy production. It is commonly thought that all calories are created equal, but this logic does not take into consideration the biochemical process of the calorie.
“Looking only at calories ignores the metabolic effects of each calorie; the source of the calorie changes how you digest it and how you retrieve energy from it.” (1)
For example, one hundred calories from a high-fat food like almonds have a very different effect on blood sugar, satiety, hormone and other energy signaling and storing pathways than one hundred calories from refined grains like crackers and cookies.
Calories should be carefully selected, rather than restricted. Instead of worrying about the number of calories in a particular food, refer to the ingredients list to determine where the calories are coming from. Aim for nutrient-dense whole foods to ensure your calories are helping regulate hormone balance, satiety, and energy levels. The high-fiber, quality protein and fat found in whole food act naturally to regulate and optimize satiety, which reduces the likelihood of overconsumption.
Fat: If you haven’t already, now is the time to stop fearing the fat content of your food. Fat is an essential macronutrient and should not be avoided. Instead of reaching for products labeled ‘fat-free’ and ‘low-fat’, aim for a variety of fats from whole food sources like nuts, avocados, cold-water fish, and animal products. For more information on the benefits of fat, refer to this blog.
Cholesterol is another nutrient that does not need to be limited, especially in the case of a diet rich in nutrient-dense, whole foods. Our intake of dietary cholesterol has little effect on our blood cholesterol levels. Not to mention, cholesterol is a precursor to building hormones, important for optimal brain function, cellular repair and vitamin D synthesis and utilization. Cholesterol that we look at in cardiovascular risk is more directly influenced by simple carbohydrate/sugar consumption and saturated fat, than cholesterol itself. Cholesterol rich foods like eggs and shellfish are power-packed with nutrients. An egg, for example, has 13 essential vitamins and minerals, omega 3 fats and protein – in one egg; hard to beat that balance.
Sodium is an essential mineral in our diet, but the average Standard American diet contains more sodium than we need. In addition, the table salt found in much of our food is predominantly sodium chloride with additional additives and void of the mineral content of natural salt. When comparing food labels, it is a good idea to aim for items lower in sodium and salt with natural salts such as Celtic sea salt and pink Himalayan rock salt. Quality, natural salts are essential for maintaining hydration by supplying the body with sodium chloride and potassium, promoting vascular and nervous system health, balancing electrolytes and preventing muscle cramping and improving sleep (2).
Carbohydrates can be an important part of a balanced diet, but the source and quality of carbohydrates is critical. Aim for carbohydrates from whole food sources like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes and favor low-glycemic index carbohydrates, like beets, carrots, and squash, over high-glycemic carbohydrates like potatoes.
Fiber is a cornerstone of a balanced diet and is often lacking in the Standard American Diet. Adequate fiber intake is essential for blood sugar balance and weight loss. In general, the higher the fiber content, the more nutritionally-adequate the food. When possible, opt for fiber from plants over fiber from grains/processed foods.
Sugar, natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners should all be limited in the diet. Whenever possible, opt for foods that are naturally sugar-free or low in sugar. It is also important to note that sugar substitutes, such as sucralose and aspartame, are not a healthy replacement for regular sugar due to the potential for harm. These non-nutritive sweeteners have been linked to disrupted microbiome health, increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome, and in some cases hyperinsulinemia (3).
Should you choose to consume sugars, aim for foods containing natural sweeteners like honey and blackstrap molasses, and eat them in moderation.
Protein intake is essential for optimal health as it affects all of the body’s organs and systems. Whether you’re selecting a meal or snack item, the higher it is in protein, the better.
Ingredients: The ingredients list is arguably the most important item on the food label and the first place you should look because the protein, carbohydrate and fat content has little meaning without knowing the source. As a general rule, if the ingredient cannot be pronounced, it should not be consumed. Aim to eat foods with minimal ingredients from quality sources that you can understand. Avoid items with dyes, preservatives, and thickeners as they can cause negative effects on your health.
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- Spell, C. S. (2016, November 04). There’s no sugar-coating it: All calories are not created equal. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/theres-no-sugar-coating-it-all-calories-are-not-created-equal-2016110410602
- Lin, S., Dr. (2018, September 21). 5 Reasons Why Salt is Good for You According to Medicine. Retrieved May 28, 2019, from https://www.drstevenlin.com/salt-good-for-you/
- Ballantyne, S. (2019, May 20). Is It Paleo? Splenda, Erythritol, Stevia and other low-calorie sweeteners ~ The Paleo Mom. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.thepaleomom.com/paleo-splenda-erythritol-stevia-low-calorie-sweeteners/