Pop quiz – which is healthier?
a. A food with 100 calories, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 0 grams trans fat, 20 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of protein per serving or…
b. A food with 200 calories, 7 grams of fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 0 grams trans fat, 10 grams carbohydrate, and 20 grams of protein per serving
Answer: No clue. I just made those numbers up.
We tend to place a lot of importance on the nutrition facts, but as you can see, without looking at the food itself, the numbers quickly lose importance. I find the Nutrition Facts cause more confusion than anything. How many times have you seen someone at the grocery store with two boxes of food in hand and a totally perplexed look on their face? Goodness knows we’ve all been there.
There are a few problems with using the nutrition facts. First, there’s the question of what numbers to look for. Everyone has their own opinion, as various organizations, doctors and even dietitians often recommend different limits. The truth is, for all of the nutrients listed, there’s no magic number. We eat food, not nutrients. There is no way to communicate the complex ways food interacts in our body with 10 or so numbers on a chart.
Also, all grams (and calories!) are not created equal. An orange has more sugar than a medium chocolate chip cookie, so is it healthier? Clearly not. A serving of 100% whole grain rye crispbread and a serving of Ritz crackers contain roughly the same amount of carbohydrate, but that doesn’t mean they are roughly the same nutritionally.
People who rely heavily on the nutrition facts often green light and overeat, many unhealthy foods. For example, working with mainly diabetics, many times they’ll find a sugar free food, and presume that means it’s good for their blood sugar. Well, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t made with refined flour, sugar alcohols or other ingredients that impact glucose control or overall health. Just because a food is sugar/fat/carbohydrate/gluten/trans fat free, does not mean it’s a healthy choice.
The Nutrition Facts are a distraction from what really matters – the ingredients list. In most cases, looking at the ingredients list tells you all you need to know. You can use your good common sense to determine if a food is a healthy choice or not. Take this food for example:
|Source: Amy’s Organics|
Would you buy it or not? It’s got sugar in it, so probably not, right? And what about those 25 grams of carbohydrate? But it is high in fiber, so maybe it’s good? Now, if I told you it was lentil soup, made only with water, lentils, carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and bay leaves, well, then that would be an easy call.
I rarely look at the Nutrition Facts. Choosing mostly one-ingredient foods, there isn’t exactly a label to look at. But even when I do purchase something with more than one ingredient, I rarely give it a glance. Instead, I check out the ingredients list. This lets me yay or nay 95% of the foods I pick up. I like to think of the Nutrition Facts as a supplement to the ingredients list. It helps me fill in the gaps.
Confused by the Nutrition Facts? You’re not a alone. Here’s what to look for and what to skip.
If you’re watching your weight, you might want to glance at the calories per serving. Ideally, you should choose whole foods, mostly plants, and stop eating when you feel full, but it’s not an ideal world. I don’t necessarily encourage calorie counting, but the truth is, calories do count. Everyone’s metabolism is different, and the appropriate calorie range is different for a meal versus a snack versus an ingredient, so there’s no specific number I would look for – just give it a glance. You might find those raw Coco-roons you love so much are a totally appropriate 80 calories per piece. But if you eat the whole bag like some people, okay me, have been known to do, that might be a problem.
Skip this. Total fat tells you nothing about where the fat comes from. There are many nutritious, high fat foods, for example avocado or nuts. Instead, look at the ingredients list to discern where most of the fat comes from.
Skip it too. Saturated fat is often considered the bad guy, but there are quite a few exceptions, like coconut and chocolate. Even for animal fats, it seems organic and grass fed meats and dairy, despite their saturated fat content, have a healthier blend of fatty acids. Instead, avoid conventional animal foods if you can and simply eat less meat overall.
Yup, you can pass over this one too. Luckily, this dangerous fat will be out of our food supply soon, but until then, you’ll have to do some sleuthing to determine if a food is truly trans fat free. A food can legally be listed as having zero grams trans fat if it contains less than .5 grams in a serving. So you’ll have to look at the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oil”, because even this small amount can be harmful to your health.
Yet another one you can skip, because carbohydrates are not bad for you. I repeat, carbohydrates are not unhealthy! Instead, pay attention to where the carbohydrate is coming from. Healthy carbohydrate containing foods include whole grains, starchy and nonstarchy vegetables, beans, whole fruit (not juice!), and milk/yogurt (organic please, and in small amounts!).
Ignore this entirely. I promise, 99.9% of you are getting enough, if not waaay more protein than you actually need.
I rarely look at fiber. If it’s made with whole grains, beans, fruit or vegetables, then it’ll have fiber.
This is one thing I actually look at, and it’s about to get a whole lot easier thanks to new labeling laws. Ironically, I don’t look at sugar content if I’m buying a sweet. If I’m purchasing something as a treat, I let it be a treat and just go with what I want. Unfortunately, significant amounts of sugar are added to foods you would never imagine – salad dressing, pasta sauce, bread, crackers, frozen meals…it feels like it’s everywhere! Currently, there’s no way to distinguish between natural and added sugars on foods. If I see sugar or any of the other 435 names that mean sugar on a food that shouldn’t contain it, then I’ll look at the Nutrition Facts to get an idea about how much. Every 4 grams is equivalent to a teaspoon of sugar. If it contains less than 4 grams, I don’t worry about it.
Do you read the Nutrition Facts? What parts confuse you the most?