When it comes to health and weight management, it’s critical that you know how to read food labels.
Not the front label - the back label.
On the front is marketing jargon. You’ll see terms like “all-natural” and “great source of xyz” and “low-calorie” and “low-fat” and other enticing claims. Sounds good, right?
Not so fast.
The truth - or at least closer to it - is on the nutrition label, and there are several things to read and consider.
I’m going to use a lunch purchase I made (during pre-quarantine life) to make a point.
I had a busy day driving around to see clients and forgot I'd need something to eat. I stopped at Trader Joe’s because they have healthier grab-and-go options.
The first thing I picked up was a 10 oz. container of chicken salad. That should be a good choice, right?
Then I read the label.
I put it back, and instead, I purchased two other things: an 8 oz. container of cauliflower tabouli (and holyballz was it good!) and a 10 oz. package of antibiotic-free turkey breast.
More on my choices in a minute.
Here are the key parts of the food label that influenced my purchase:
Obviously, this is important. The ingredients are listed in order of most to least, so if sugar is listed first or second, for example, that’s a red flag.
And, an ingredient like sugar goes by many names. A few examples include sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, and dehydrated cane juice. They all mean sugar.
The same goes for salt (sodium benzoate, disodium or monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate) and fats.
Read the ingredient list. You’re looking for ingredients you recognize and know to be of decent nutritional quality.
CALORIES + SERVING SIZE
These go together because this is where food manufacturers turn into assholes tricksters.
You might see 300 calories marked in bold, but this is per serving, and the entire container might hold more than one serving.
Let's say an item contains 3.5 servings at 300 calories per serving - and you don't realize it.
At first glance you think you’re getting a 300 calorie snack but WHO EATS ONLY PART OF A BAG AMIRIGHT. You eat the entire container and now you ate a whopping 1,050 calories.
More often than not, the serving size is small. Way smaller than expected. With most cereals, it’s ½ cup. Have you ever actually measured out a half cup of cereal? I can eat that in two spoonfuls.
With salad dressings the recommended serving size is almost always 2 TBSP, and most people use at least 4, and often more.
When you think something like, “but I only have salads for lunch!” consider how that salad can be upwards of 1500 calories if you use a lot of dressing, and add cheese, avocado, bacon bits, nuts, croutons, and so on.
I know. I’m sorry. I’m no fun at parties.
(Actually, I'm a LOT of fun at parties, but that's another post for another time.)
MACRONUTRIENTS - Protein, Carbs, Fat
Generally speaking (it’s different for different goals), you’ll want to look for items that are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, sugars and fats.
Carbohydrates aren’t all bad, but lots of sugar wreaks havoc on your health.
Pay specific attention to the number of sugar grams. I aim to keep it to 10 g per serving or less. (Which eliminates 90% of packaged foods.) (Sigh again.)
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
That 10 oz container of chicken salad at Trader Joe's I decided against? Even though the ingredient list wasn’t super long or unrecognizable, it contained 975 calories and a high amount of fat.
And believe me, I would’ve eaten the entire thing.
I could’ve chosen it - but let’s assume I’m on a 2000 calorie/day plan. Do I want to eat half my day’s calories in one meal?
I very much do not.
The entire tub of cauliflower tabouli, however, came to only 240 calories, and the entire package of turkey only 200 calories. And together, it was a greater volume of food so I got the satisfaction of eating “more.”
Yep, I ate both. All of ‘em.
:::licks fingers, pats belly:::
Here’s another example.
For kicks, I looked at the label on a can of pickled beets in my pantry.
The first thing I see is, “only 15 calories! Woohoo!”
But wait - it says the can contains 9 servings. So if I eat the entire can - and honestly, that’d be like eating one beet - that’s 135 calories.
I'm not saying 135 calories is too much to eat. I'm saying that at first glance, it looks like I'll only be eating 9 calories. Gotta do the math, y'all.
Let’s consider the nutritional value of that can of pickled beets.
- No fat; cool. - No cholesterol; right on. - Low in sodium; nice. - Low in carbs at only 4 g; Great!
- Grams of sugar - 4
But wait, why does it contain 4 g of sugar? Are those naturally-occurring sugars in the beets?
A closer look reveals high fructose corn syrup in the list of ingredients.
4 g isn’t enough to be a deal-breaker, but this is an example of how sugars are often added to products where we don’t expect them to be.
Beets are considered nutritious because they contain folate, manganese, B vitamins and other vitamins and minerals, and even though they’re high in natural sugars, their fiber content reduces the blood sugar impact. Beets are healthy.
But notice the food label doesn’t tell *that* story.
My Nutrition Day Off Change of Heart
In the game, we get one day off the nutrition category to eat whatever we want. After years of playing the game, I don't binge on those days - I very deliberately plan what fun foods I want and make a big deal out of it.
Well, I found a box of lemon bars mix in my cupboard the other day and thought NUTRITION DAY OFF TREAT! I got super excited. I love lemon bars sooooo much.
Then I read the (stoopid) label.
On the front, two enticing claims....
"Made with real lemons!" Oh that is good, right?
"No artificial flavors!" Even better!
Then I looked at the Nutrition Facts.
20 g of sugar per serving. Twice the standard I aim for.
But even worse? There are.... 18 SERVINGS in this box, and it only makes an 8x8" pan!
LITERALLY a serving is like a mini-bite. ( <--- proper use of the word literally)
I was home alone, so odds are I was going to eat 3, 4... 7... 9 servings. Easily. I LOVE lemon bars so it would be reeeally hard for me to eat just a few. I know this about myself.
I didn't make it.
It Is So Easy to Misunderstand What We Eat
This post isn’t to shame you for what you eat and how much. It’s to help you become a detective and learn how to read labels on the foods you’re eating and then understand how it fits into the “big picture” for your health.
Things are added to foods for a variety of reasons - to make them more palatable, to make them more shelf stable, to make them hold their form, to make them more colorfully appealing, to brighten flavors, and so on.
This is why fresh is best whenever possible.