Understanding Nutrition Labels

I know how confusing nutrition labels can be. Unfortunately, I have a strong distaste for the way the Food & Drug Administration do things and nutrition labels is one. I have taken countless nutrition courses throughout my time at university, but the nutritional facts are something that I never enjoyed learning.

In high school, I understood calories and percentages of fat, but other than that I was a bit lost. Today I hardly, if ever, glance at the nutrition percentages and numbers. To be honest, the only thing I am reading on the label of packaged food is the ingredient list.

The ingredients list can tell me if I am eating something healthy or not. I am not trying to gripe on Dr. Oz, although he has been in hot water lately, but I remember him saying if the ingredient list has more than 5 items on it, don’t buy it. But here is my question, what if it has 10 different ingredients and surprise surprise you know what ever item is? Even better, every ingredient comes from a whole food?

This is where I feel people can really make a difference in their diets. I am not talking about diet with the intention of depriving oneself, but diet as in what a person eats on a daily basis. If we could understand what exactly are in those snacks we are constantly eating, and how those ingredients help/hurt our bodies, then I think we would all be better off. Think about it, what is the point of knowing something is low-fat, but the first ingredient is an artificial sweetener which sends hunger signals to our brain so we end up eating an entire bag? What is more, how many people actually eat only one serving according to that label? It just isn’t realistic.

The goal should ideally be to eat whole foods whenever possible. Realistically though, we need to purchase items from a bag or jar, and that is ok and can be done right, with some thought. I regularly use a jar of tomato sauce for my meals and there are close to ten ingredients, but most are veggies with the exception of some herbs. Most likely, if we are reading the ingredients list and know every ingredient, we don’t need to waste time checking those pesky numbers. After all, I know if there is partially hydrogenated oils, then there are trans fats. I know if there is salt, sodium levels might be high. If there is high-fructose corn syrup, then there are sugars. If we know what every ingredient is, we can make better decisions and understand where we are getting our nutrients.

Furthermore, the nutrition label is based on a universal percentage of fat, protein, and carbohydrate on a 2,000 calorie diet. But who does this percentage actually apply to exactly? Athletes need different requirements than someone who is more sedentary. Every body is completely different and unique thanks to genetics, so there isn’t one equation fit for everyone. I know I work best on higher carbohydrate percentages nearing 80% and low fat percentages sometimes at or below 10%, but what works for me may not work for you. And where is the fun trying to calculate those numbers at every meal, or keep track of calories? Keep track of the ingredients and I am sure the rest will work itself out. (If you really want to check what percentages you intake check out Cron-O-Meter to get an idea and adjust accordingly from there, but don’t make it your life.)

The point of my rant is that we can serve our bodies well if we just read the ingredients list. If you don’t understand an ingredient, we are in the age where most of us have portable internet devices and we can find out for ourselves. Do your research. There are countless scientific names for things like monosodium-glutamate (MSG), along with sugar and the like that also have different pseudo-names.

Takeaway message? Look for whole, plant-based ingredients, and keep in mind the list is in order of weight so the first ingredient is the one that weighs the most. Hopefully you will start to take notice of your grocery items and learn a thing or two about ingredients.

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