Nutrition Day 4 – Reading food labels

How funny is this cartoon?  As much as I hate mean people, that is how much I love funny people.  I have to get right down to it today.  Ironically, I have to go into the city to take my daughter to a cupcake making class.  If I were a better mother, I’d take her to an organic farm and teach her how to dig through two feet of snow for root vegetables.  Label reading is critical to making healthy choices but it is simple and you are all very smart so this should be easy.  I know that you don’t have time to read the label on everything that you buy every time you buy it.  That’s why you should have your healthy favorites and go to’s to make shopping easy.  If you are buying something for the first time, here are the five things that you should be looking for.  It is o.k. to have some balance in your pantry but if you are going to eat junk, you should at least know what your are getting yourself into.

1.  Serving size – This is so important because sometimes you will look at the fat content in say, a chocolate covered cookie and you will be pleasantly surprised.  You will then realize that a serving size is 1/2 cookie and since you are accustomed to wolfing down a whole sleeve, suddenly 4g of fat isn’t looking so good.

2.  Calories and fats – This is especially important if you are trying to lose weight.  Your total caloric intake is pretty obvious.  If you are on a diet, women should shoot for about 1200 calories a day and men should aim for less than 2000. Click here for a cool calorie calculator.   Fat free isn’t necessarily the way to go but you should avoid foods that have a high percentage of calories from fat.  Your total fat intake for the day should be between 25-35% – less if you are trying to lose weight.  If you stick to foods that have a low percentage of fat to start with, you won’t have to think about fat at all.  Here’s a comparison.  Pepperidge Farm Pretzel Thins have 110 calories and no fat.  Frito Lay Fritos (which in my opinion are the most underrated chip) have 160 calories (not terribly more) but 90 of those calories come from fat.  I’m not great at math but that is over 50%.  Ouch.  When it comes to types of fats and cardiovascular health, stay away from Trans Fats at all costs unless you are really dying for a stent.  Be more accepting of unsaturated fats than of saturated fats.  Click here for more on fat.

3.  Fiber – Remember that fiber not only keeps things moving in the right direction, it is great for weight loss and disease prevention.  Women should get about 20g in their diet each day and men should get about 30g.  The fiber bars and fiber cereals they make now taste really good, especially if you have them with some fruit.  Don’t be fooled though.  Taste and enjoying your meal are important too.  I am looking at two boxes of pasta.  One is a whole grain, “heart healthy” fusilli, which I bought because I thought it would look good in my cart in case any YesFive readers spotted me.  The other is Barilla Ziti.  The only difference is that while the ziti has 2 grams of fiber, the fusilli has 6 grams.  Yes, that is four extra grams of fiber but if you can find a different way to get enough fiber into yourself and your kids, go for it.  The whole grain definitely does not taste as good.

4.  Sugars – The bottom line is that sugar in excess is not good for you.  The jury is still out on what types of sugars are better than others but everyone agrees that sugar leads to weight gain, bloating and increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and likely, some cancers.  Unless you can find a dentist to extract all your sweet teeth, like me, you probably need some sugar to get through the day.  There is sugar in almost everything that is palatable and recommendations on how much is o.k. are confusing.  Sugar represents an empty calorie, that is, it has no nutritional benefit.  The clearest guideline, although I can’t believe anyone can do this, is to limit sugar intake to 8 teaspoons or about 32 grams per day.  This might not sound like a lot, but look at the label on your syrup, your ketchup and your oatmeal and you will realize how little this is.  There’s the info.  You are on your own on this one – I put 4 teaspoons of sugar in my 2 cups of tea this morning.

5.  Ingredients – I have never been good at foreign languages and the ingredient section of a nutrition label is no exception.  If you cannot pronounce or have never heard of half of the ingredients, don’t buy it.  If there are more numbers than letters, don’t buy it.  If you are looking for allergy information, under the ingredients, the manufacturer has to list anything the product contains or may contain that has allergenic potential.

There you have it … labels 101.  My personal take-home message is that just because the box is brown or says “healthy” does not necessarily make it so.  Do a little comparison before you sacrifice taste.  I would rather my children eat something nutritious with a little more fat than push away something that is fat-free.  The same is true for organic foods.  Chef Ellen reminded me to reinforce that organic cookies and organic chips are still junk food.  Their ingredients just weren’t grown with the help of a lot of chemicals.  Go have an apple.  I am off to learn how to make the perfect cupcake – it is all about balance.

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