Food Labels 101: A Simple Approach to Understanding Nutrition Facts & Ingredient Lists
I remember when I first got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, reading and understanding food labels was all of a sudden extremely important to my management. It was super intimidating at first but after a while, it became second nature.
For the first 3 or 4 years of my diagnosis, all I cared about when reading food labels was carbohydrates, fibre and sugar. The amount of carbs in a food product almost always determined whether I would buy it or not. Slowly as my health journey unfolded, I began to check out calories, protein, and fat. Eventually I became extremely conscious of every macro and micro nutrient listed on the label and began to make much more informed decisions about the food I was putting in my body. I also started taking a closer look at ingredients list, since, when focusing so much on the nutrition label, the ingredients list can a lot of the time be overlooked.
I’ve created and easy guide for deciphering food labels on how to choose the highest quality, most nutrient-dense foods.
First off, ALWAYS check the serving size. I used to ignore this vital piece of information and just look at the grams of carbs/sugar. Sometimes though, the serving size can be TINY therefore it looks like the food isn’t as high in carb of fat or calories as you think.
This one can be sneaky. Just because something is super high in carb or sugar doesn't automatically mean its really bad for you. Its very important to cross reference the carbs with the ingredients list. If one of the first ingredients on the label is sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, rice syrup or any other synonym for refined white sugar, then that indicates a highly processed product with a very high glycemic index and not a lot of nutritional value. In this case, I'd stay away from the product.
However, if one of the first ingredients is dates or bananas or a natural form of carb/sugar, then in most cases the glycemic index is a lot lower and won't spike your blood sugar as much. Whole, plant based ingredients also contain a lot of micronutrients, which will aid your overall health and function of vital organs.
That being said, 30 grams of sugar in a product is still a lot for your body to handle no matter what the source. Even though not all sugar is created equally, it still all affects your body in a similar way. Ingesting 30 grams of sugar is like eating 6 teaspoons of sugar!!! Now just visualize that next time you pick up a packaged cookie or smoothie.
It's also important to check out the amount of fibre listed under the carbohydrates. If a product is high in fibre, it will be a lot easier to avoid big spikes in blood sugar. It will also do your digestive system a lot of good. If you are counting carbs, it's important to subtract the amount of fibre from the overall carbs to know how much insulin to inject or if you're just keeping track of your macros. Fibre is not digested, therefore, it won't affect your blood sugar or count as calories.
Fat is such an important nutrient for brain health, heart disease prevention and stabilization of energy. A lot of media tells us that fat is bad and will make us fat, companies have created so many low fat or fat free versions of perfectly healthy foods like yogurt. They're not totally wrong about fat, SOME fat is bad, but most of it (if coming from a good wholesome source) is totally healthy and actually necessary for human function. It took me a while to figure out which fats were good and which ones to avoid, but its really super simple when it comes down to it. Unsaturated (poly or mono) are good fats and trans fats are the ones you wants to avoid. If you are purchasing something that claims it's "healthy" always check if there's trans fat in it, if there is, maybe reconsider your decision. Trans fats are bad because they are proven to clog arteries, raise the "bad" cholesterol and it also increases the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
Isn't it funny how one type of fat can save you from heart disease and one can cause you to get it?
Another aspect to consider when buying a food item with fat in it, is how much fat is in it. If a serving of the product contains more than 40% of your daily value of fat, then just be aware that by eating something like that regularly, it can lead to an unbalanced diet. Also, eating lots of fat, whether it is with a meal or snack, causes insulin resistance and can affect how your insulin is absorbed later on in the day (since fat takes a long time to get absorbed). For non diabetics this is still important because it makes your pancreas work a lot harder than if it were eating a regular amount of fat, which isn't ideal.
Eating fat in a balanced, whole foods diet, is great and should not be feared. They have been included in our diet basically since the dawn of time so they're obviously doing something right!
Protein is something that I've most recently wanted to inccoperate more of into my diet. I've noticed that when I eat more, I feel much more satiated and energized after a meal. There are a lot of packaged foods that claim "high in protein" but you need to really inspect the label to see if they actually are. Something with 3 or 4 grams of protein per serving is great but in no way "high protein." I aim to get my weight in kgs on the scale, in grams of protein everyday, at the minimum. A lot of high protein cookies and "healthy" junk food, actually grossly overestimate the amount of protein in their products to better appeal to customers. That being said always cross check the ingredients list with the nutrition label to see how high up the main protein ingredient is. If it's passed the 5th ingredient on the list but the label is claiming its super high in protein, chances are they're lying to you.
An example would be in Lenny and Larry's cookies, they were claiming that their cookies contained 16 grams of protein but the protein was listed as the 10th ingredient. Check out this link for more details on that lawsuit.
Also its important to be aware of protein sources. Try to get protein coming from as natural sources as possible and avoid denatured, hydrolyzed and isolate proteins.
Protein is important for bone and blood health, cartilage, skin, hair, nails and muscles. Some good sources of protein are tempeh, lentils, black beans and other legumes, fermented protein powder, oats, broccoli, spinach, nuts and seeds and many other whole foods sources.
Packaged products in general, like chips, cookies, crackers, canned foods, being sold to customers generally don't contain a lot of nutritional value. The main problem with replacing whole foods with processed, packaged foods, is the lack of micronutrients. Through the process of manufacturing and creating a shelf-stable product (such as exposing food to high levels of heat, light and/or oxygen) many of the micro nutrients get stripped away. This is why there's so much stress on eating whole foods vs processed foods. When buying a packaged food, make sure it is high in at least 2 micronutrients. Over 25% -30% per serving of your daily value would be considered high.
Eating packaged foods that have been fortified can be an easier way to get in your daily dose of micronutrients although there is debate as to whether added micronutrients have the same positive effect on health as whole foods containing micronutrients.
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