At Proactive Evolution, we suggest that the majority of food you put into your body comes from foods that do not have nutrition labels on them because they're things like fresh vegetables and fruits. And for the remaining foods, we strongly recommend minimally processed foods wherever possible. That being said, knowing the nutritional information of the foods you're eating is extremely important, especially if you want to make sure you're eating healthy and nutritionally dense foods that are good for your body.
Reading the Label
In the United States, by law, all processed foods are required have a label with the following information:
- Serving size.
- Number of servings per package.
- Protein (in grams).
- Total Fat (in grams).
- Saturated fat (in grams).
- Trans fat (in grams).
- Total Carbohydrates (in grams).
- Sugars (in grams).
- Fiber (in grams).
- Vitamins, minerals and other nutrients (as a percentage of the recommended dietary allowance).
- Ingredient list.
The nutrition information is all based on one serving. This is important because often people eat more than one serving. For example, how many people eat 1/2 cup of packaged cold cereal? In reality, the average person has multiple servings at a time. As such, the values need to be multiplied by the number of servings actually consumed.
Due to the laws regarding weight or fill volume values, companies can be fined for inaccurate weights or inaccurately filling the containers. However, they are less likely to get penalized or have negative public relation issues if they over-fill. What this means for you is that the number of servings per package that is listed on the label may not be accurate. For example, a cookie package might say that a serving is 60 grams and the package contains two servings. However, the actual weight of the cookie might be 150 grams. Thus, the 30 gram overage in this example is 50% of a full serving. For a high-calorie item like a cookie (see the label to the right), this could add an additional 115 calories on top of the 460 calories listed for the two servings. For this reason, if you're trying to lose weight and consuming many packaged foods, it is a good idea to get yourself a kitchen scale and start weighing your foods and ingredients to make sure you're not counter acting all the hard work you're putting in.
Also note, many food manufacturers will purposely label a serving size as significantly smaller than what is normally eaten because they don't want you to realize how many calories you're actually eating. In general, 40 calories per serving is considered low, 100 calories per serving is moderate and over 400 calories is high. For the cookie listed in the label to the right, it's pretty common for one person to eat the whole cookie. By saying that there are 2 servings in the package, the manufacturer can make you think you're getting something with a moderate number of calories, when in reality you're eating a very high calorie item.
The next item on the label to pay close attention to is the section on the fat content. While fat is necessary for human life, there are different types of fat, some of which are healthy and some of which are not. In general, saturated fat is not healthy. Examples of saturated fats include, beef fat, butter, chicken fat, refined-deodorized coconut oil*, cream, palm kernel oil, pork fat (lard) shortening or margarine. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and has been shown to clog arteries. For this reason, it's best to limit saturated fat to under 10% of daily calories, and ideally under 7%. Since fat has 9 calories per gram, someone eating 2000 calories per day shouldn't have more than 140 calories from saturated fat (2000 × 0.07) or 15.5 grams (2000 × 0.07 ÷ 9). Note that you will need to perform the appropriate calculations if you're a smaller person who only eats 1500 calories per day, or an athlete who is eating more than 2000 calories per day.
Trans fat is a manufactured product which takes liquid oil and pumps hydrogen into it. The process causes the fat to take a solid form at room temperature which is more stable and prolongs shelf life. However, trans fat has been linked to cardiovascular disease and should be avoided! Manufacturers do not need to label trans fat below 0.5 grams per serving, yet they may actually include it in the ingredients. For this reason, it is a good idea to read the ingredients to see if the product contains any "partially hydrogenated" oils. Even at low levels, trans fats pose a health risk.
The US Government recommends that total blood cholesterol levels be kept below 200 mg/dL and that the LDL cholesterol be kept below 100 mg/dL. For healthy individuals, that means limiting intake to under 300 mg per day. While eating foods that are high in cholesterol won't usually raise your blood cholesterol levels, the fats in your diet, such as saturated fats and trans fats will raise the levels. Regardless, you're best off reducing the total cholesterol you consume.
It is recommended that the maximum amount of sodium in the diet be limited to about 1500 mg per day. At that level, according to the American Heart Association, there is a significant reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke. While less than 1500 mg is ideal, even cutting back to 2400 mg per day has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure. However, the average American is actually consuming more than 3400 mg per day, with more than 75% of that being hidden in processed, pre-packaged and restaurant foods rather than from adding it via the salt shaker.
Of course, individuals who engage in extended strenuous physical activities or are exposed to major heat stress, or those with specific medical conditions, need more than the recommended 1500 mg. If you think you fit into one of these categories, it is recommended that you consult with a qualified healthcare professional to find out what your ideal consumption should be.
Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy. Carbohydrates, often referred to as "Carbs" may be broken down into three main types: Starches (also known as complex carbohydrates), sugars and fiber. On the nutrition label, the "Total Carbohydrate" value includes all three types.
Starches are generally not listed separately on a nutrition label, so you will need to calculate the difference between the total carbohydrate value minus the sugar and fiber values to figure it out. Starch is a polysaccharide, or a chain of simple sugars chemically bound together into a single molecule, and is broken down by the body into glucose, a simple sugar, to provide energy for cellular activity. Because of its complex chemical structure, it takes the body longer to break it down, therefore, slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream as compared to simple sugars such as glucose, fructose (fruit sugar), galactose, sucrose (table sugar--glucose + fructose), lactose (milk sugar--glucose+galactose) or maltose (glucose+glucose).
Fiber is also a polysaccharide, but due to its molecular configuration, it is not broken down by the body and passes through the intestines undigested. Fiber has many significant health benefits, including reduced cholesterol levels, digestive health, regular bowel movements, and feeling "full" and satisfied after eating. It is recommended that adults eat at least 30 grams of fiber each day. Unfortunately, because of the use of refined grains and reduced vegetable and fruit consumption in the average American's diet, most people are not coming close to that value.
The value listed for sugar refers to the number of grams of simple sugars, both added and naturally occurring. Naturally occurring sugars primarily come from milk and fruit, while added sugars include the simple sugars added during processing (such as sucrose added to make a cake). Sugar goes by many different names and is derived from a variety of sources beyond sugar cane. However, other than having greater or lesser quantities of minerals and vitamins, or being digested by the body in differing ways, added sugar is still added sugar. It's a good idea to reduce or otherwise limit the amount of sugar you're consuming to what your body requires for your level of physical exertion. Excess sugar, including starch, gets converted into fat and stored in adipose tissue.
The amount of protein listed on the label, in grams, is unique in that it often doesn't include a daily percentage value. In general, adults should consume between 0.5 and 1.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight, with more required for individuals looking to build muscle.
The ingredients are listed in decreasing order of substance weight, and is most useful to determine whether the product contains trans fat, added sugars, whole grains or refined grains, as well as any chemicals or preservatives. In terms of grains, it is useful to note that if refined grains are listed before whole grains (e.g. enriched unbleached wheat flour vs whole wheat flour), then the product is not a whole grain product. As such, even though it may have some whole grain flour in it, it would be considered a "white" product (e.g. White bread vs Whole Wheat bread.) Given the higher fiber content of whole grains, it's in your best interests to stick to products that do not contain refined grains.
As already noted, here at Proactive Evolution, we recommend eating lots of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, etc. If you're looking to integrate healthy eating into your life, we can help. We offer Registered Dietitian designed meal plans that take your individual preferences into account as well as shopping assistance, education and health coaching. Click on over to the "Contact" page and get started today!
“The older refined-deodorized bleached coconut oil causes rapid and very unhealthy looking rises in cholesterol, for sure, no doubt,” Brenna said in an email to HuffPost Healthy Living. “There is no evidence that that is the case for virgin coconut oil, which is available today but was not in the 1970s and ‘80s when people were using RDB coconut oil.”
"About half of virgin coconut oil’s saturated fat is lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride that turns out to have a number of health-promoting properties, including the ability to improve levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. People can also more easily digest medium-chain triglycerides and convert them to energy, according to The Wall Street Journal, making coconut oil a good choice for athletes. That said, because it’s so high in saturated fat, even the purest, most natural coconut oil could be problematic for long term heart health, according to a Harvard nutrition professor."