Would you believe me if I told you that the calorie count in foods shouldn’t be the only thing you look at? It pains me a little inside when people tell me that their smoothie or soup ONLY has X amount of calories and then I take a look at the other macro nutrient values or the ingredient list and I die a little inside, that’s where the real danger lies. This unfortunately isn’t our fault, it is just down to lack of knowledge and information taught to us in today’s society RE different nutritional information outside of the calorie count.
What are the first things I should pay attention to when reading a food label?
Start by looking at the ingredients on a food label. The first few ingredients will help you distinguish if the item is actually good for you, or if the label is just ‘selling’ the product as healthy. For example, when you look at a loaf of bread, the label may say “whole grain”, but if the first few ingredients are white or whole wheat flour, you probably know that it is not in fact whole grain.
In addition to looking at the first few ingredients, you will want to pay attention to all of the ingredients in general. Do a quick scan… are there tons of ingredients, most of which you can’t pronounce? If so, you know that the product is most likely not very ‘clean’, and is filled with a bunch of chemicals and additives. On this same note however, do keep in mind that some ingredients that you can’t pronounce are going to be inevitable from time to time. This is because many foods (even healthy and organic foods) use natural preservatives to stay good on the shelves longer than one week. If you are unsure about ingredients, by all means use your best judgement, or do a quick internet search! The best thing about looking at food labels is you get to decide what you put in your body! Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to fueling the only body we have!
What do I look at next?
The next thing you will want to look at is the actual nutrition label, which is the break down of macros and nutrients found in a food. These labels can seem overwhelming if you don’t know what to pay attention to, so I recommend breaking it down into FIVE key nutrients. (Please take note that this is not a comprehensive list. I also recommend looking at the fat and sodium content in products, as well as any other nutrients that you may need to take note of based on your specific needs. These are just a list of the top five things I personally look at to quickly determine if a food/product is well balanced.)
Also, take note that when it comes to reading food labels that they can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the serving size listed. When looking at a nutrition label, be sure to ask yourself, what is an actual serving size of this product, and will this serving size be realistic for me? If not, be sure to factor the nutrition accordingly if you plan to have more than one serving size!
Here are the five things I recommend paying attention to when you are looking at a food label:
1. Calories: It is important to start by clearing things up…Calories are not “bad”, despite what you may have heard. Calories are simply a way for us to tell us how much energy or fuel a food will supply to our bodies. Paying attention to calories allows us to make wise decisions on how to fuel our bodies best for the day. I often like to think of them as a ‘budget” that we get for our day. Once you determine a healthy amount of calories, you can budget foods in as needed throughout your day. One thing to pay careful attention to with calories is the serving size. Make sure you are looking at calories per serving, as this can be deceiving if you are not careful.
2. Carbohydrates: Just like calories, carbohydrates sometimes get a bad rap, but carbohydrates are actually vital for our energy, and our brain is run strictly on glucose, (a broken down source of carbohydrates). So, if we want to be fueled properly, and have our brain working at it’s tip-top shape, we need to consume a healthy balance of carbohydrates. When it comes to carbohydrates, I always check the overall number per serving. In general, for one serving of a food, if the carbohydrates exceed 40 you know that it is probably a bit excessive, and you may want to find a better option, (unless of course you are fueling for a marathon or hard core workout). The reason being is that most of us simply don’t move enough in our every day lives to use up excessive amount of carbohydrates, and what doesn’t get used up as energy will essentially store as fat. The best type of carbohydrates to look for are whole grains (which includes old fashioned oats), quinoa, beans and lentils, fruits and vegetables.
3. Fiber: After looking at the carbohydrates, the next thing I look for is the amount of fiber in a serving. I like to ask myself, is there enough fiber to help balance out the carbohydrates? The amount of fiber will be a quick way of telling you if the product is a a complex carbohydrate (the good kind of carb, rather than the simple carbs which are not good for you), because complex carbohydrate products will be higher in fiber. For example, when I am looking at a bread or pasta product, I look for at least 4-5 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber is good because it helps balance our blood sugar levels, and it essentially means that the carbohydrates are slow digesting, which means long lasting energy without the crashes (which we can get from simple carbs). Another benefit of fiber is that in general, the higher the fiber in a serving, the more satisfying the product will be, and it helps with digestion as well!
4. Protein: Protein is the next thing to check for on the food label. Protein is essential for the building of lean muscle (which helps boost metabolism), and it is also the macronutrient that takes the longest to digest…which means it keeps us feeling satisfied for longer periods of time! When I look at the protein of an item, I know it is a good source of protein if it has at least 5 grams of protein (or more) per serving. Some good sources of protein are lean meats, low fat dairy products, and eggs!
5. Sugar: When it comes to sugar, I recommend to keep it as low as possible. The reason being is that sugar simply does nothing nutritionally for our bodies. There is nothing beneficial about it, and it can lead to cravings, unbalanced blood sugar levels, and an increase in stored fat. With this being said, it is almost impossible to stay away from sugar entirely, so as a general rule I recommend looking for products that have less than 6 grams per serving.
I hope this guide on how to read a food label is helpful J This guide is pretty basic and general, and to be honest, I don’t always follow these ‘guidelines’ myself perfectly. I try to stick to the 80/20 rule, which means I try to fuel my body and educate myself on what I am eating 80% of the time…But I also believe in living a life of moderation and balance, which means there are times that I enjoy chocolate (and it certainly has more than 6 grams of sugar), but I enjoy it in moderation which helps me keep an overall balance. Because although it is important to be aware of the food we eat, it is also just as unhealthy to become obsessed with food labels and macronutrients and weighing – but that’s another days conversation!
Find PART 2 here Calculating your calories and macros