Hello dear friends!
I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who was an R.D. (registered dietician) and knew her way around the tricks of the food industry. Even though I hated eating natural peanut butter and whole-wheat toast when my school friends had Jif and Wonderbread, looking back, I’m so happy that she stuck to what she knew was best at the time. And while my opinions on what constitutes “healthy” food has changed quite a bit since then, she and I can both agree that reading labels on your food is one of the most important skills that everyone needs to have. Navigating the complexities of the modern food industry, marketing schemes, and nutritional advice can be overwhelming, but it always begins with knowing what is in your food. And the easiest place to start is by reading the label.
Now, I was under the impression growing up that everyone read the labels on their food before they bought it. Once I reached adulthood, it was a rude awakening to see my friends, partners, and coworkers just grab things off the shelves without a second glance. I used to think to myself, “Don’t they want to know what they’re putting in their bodies?” or “Do they even know that this has (insert offending ingredient here) in it?” It took me a while to realize that most people actually don’t read nutrition labels at all. I thought maybe nobody else cared about what they ate, until it occurred to me that they may not even know how to read a label, or understand why they might want to!
One of the cornerstones of my wellness coaching practice is helping people become empowered to make healthy food choices. And empowerment requires knowledge, my friends, so I knew I needed to start there. When you are aware of the ingredients in your food, and what they do in your body, you can make mindful decisions about your wellness. So this post is for any of you who may not be familiar with reading food labels, or perhaps need a refresher course. And a quick disclaimer before we begin- I will be teaching from a paleo/ancestral point of view, which sometimes clashes with the corporate food industry’s way of categorizing ingredients and health risks/benefits. Dozens of major food lobbies are behind the USDA and FDA, and control the creation of things like the food pyramid and food labeling standards…but that’s a topic for a whole other blog!
So let’s just dive right in. Here is an example nutrition facts label that I grabbed off the internet. You see two variations here, because the industry is starting to transition to the style on the right, but you’ll still encounter the older style on the left. They’re pretty similar, but it’s helpful to see the main points on both templates! I’ve highlighted the main points, and will go through them one by one. Ready? Let’s do this!
1. Serving size (in red)
Unless you’re the type who weighs and measures your food, this part of the label may not be very helpful. The basic thing it tells you is how much of each nutrient/ingredient is in a certain volume of food. We humans are notoriously bad at estimating how much food we’re actually consuming, but occasionally it’s nice to see how far off the manufacturer is (who only eats 8 potato chips? I mean, come on…). For a fun experiment, measure out the correct serving size of some of your favorite foods, so you can have a visual representation of the calories/fat/sugar/etc…
2. Servings per container (in orange)
Now, this is a tricky one. Especially in packaging that appears to be “single serving,” like small bags of chips, bottles of juice, or pre-made burritos. Most of the time, there is actually more than one serving in them. But your eyes may be trained to scan the nutrition label and merely take in the nutrient numbers for calories, sodium, or vitamin content, tricking your brain into thinking that you’re only consuming one serving size, when you’re actually tipping back 2 or 3! You’ll notice on the new label, this aspect is made more visible.
3. Calories (in yellow)
One of the most obvious changes from the old to the new label is the emphasis on calories. However, in primal nutrition, this is far from being the top priority. While it’s great to have an idea of how many calories you’re consuming, especially if you’re trying to lose or gain weight, you should be more concerned with the other ingredients.
4. Fat (in light green)
Hopefully, our collective fat-fearing days are behind us, but so many food products still contain harmful fats, so it’s good to take a look here. Be sure to keep a special eye on these things called “trans fats,” which are chemically altered fats that have no business being in your bod. Don’t worry as much about saturated fats or total fats- be more concerned about where they come from- i.e. fat from an organic avocado is super, but fat from partially hydrogenated soybean oil is definitely not. (Stay tuned for Part II when I help you debunk the ingredients list!)
5. Cholesterol (in dark green)
Oh boy, another innocent ingredient that is still suffering too much nutritional finger-pointing. Cholesterol is necessary for hundreds of physiological functions, and can be healthy. So unless you are at extremely high risk for heart attack or stroke, don't fear the cholesterol numbers. Again, it matters more where the cholesterol is coming from, rather than how much is in it. Just like fat, when you see “low” or “no cholesterol” on the package, it’s likely filled with artificial flavors, sugars, and processed grains.
6. Sodium (in blue-green)
This is a handy number to keep an eye on if you suffer from high blood pressure or a heart condition. Sodium is also something that is often artificially added in food processing, so just pay attention to the ingredients themselves that may be high in sodium. And remember that food doesn’t have to taste salty to be high in sodium! Another note- people (like me!) with low blood pressure and weak adrenal glands actually need more sodium- from natural sources like pink Himalayan salt, preferably.
7. Carbohydrate (in blue)
Now we’re getting somewhere. This is the macronutrient that has the biggest and potentially worst effects on your physiology, so take special note of this number. For those trying to follow a primal/paleo diet, it’s recommended to consume between 100-150 grams/day for maintenance, 50-100 grams/day for moderate fat loss, and less than 50 grams/day for accelerated fat loss. As a general rule, your carbs should come from plant sources like sweet potatoes, low-sugar fruits, and fibrous veggies. And yes, fiber is good! Eat up!
8. Sugars (in purple)
Hands down, if you had to pay attention to only one part of the nutrition label, it should be this part. Finally, modern science is revealing that sugar has been our health enemy since the beginning, despite what the food industry wants you to believe. I absolutely LOVE that the new label includes “added sugars,” since this is the problem area. Most foods have some amount of naturally-occurring sugar, which isn’t a big issue for most people, but many foods (especially packaged/processed ones) have extra sugars added. Again, take a look at where the sugars come from to make the best decision for your body. E.g. avoid toxic high-fructose corn syrup like the plague, but honey may be just fine!
9. Protein (in pink-purple)
Despite what you may think, the average American actually consumes far more protein than they need. The human body’s ability to utilize protein halts around 35% of total daily calories, and remember that protein toxicity is a real thing. Make sure you get enough protein to feel satiated and support your body’s regenerative processes (especially if you’re active or suffering from any kind of wasting disease), but don’t fall for the protein-pushing bros. Always combine it with fat, avoid pounding isolated protein powders, and try to stay within the 15-20% range.
10. Micronutrients (in pink)
Most people kind of skip over this part of the label, and honestly, that’s probably okay. Don’t look to processed and packaged foods to supply your vitamins and minerals every day- you’re going to find those in your leafy greens, brightly colored fruits and veggies, eggs, and organic proteins. Many packaged foods have these ingredients added artificially, which never compares to the expert way that Mother Nature supplies them.
Alright, friends, we made it! Feeling overwhelmed? It’s okay! If you’re new to reading nutrition labels, just start slowly. Feel free to do more of your own research. Start right now and check out some of the things in your pantry. And next time you’re at the store, take a peek at a label or two. Soon, it’ll be instinct! Of course, if you’re still feeling lost, or need more direction on how to identify the right nutrients for your needs, get in touch with me! I’m happy to help.
Stay tuned next week for Part II of this blog, where I walk you through the confusing land of ingredient lists!
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~