Reading nutritional labels can be quite the daunting task! On top of that, leading experts have long believed that our nation's nutritional standards are causing more heart disease and diabetes then ever before. So here is a breakdown of what a nutrition label will tell you, why skimming the surface of a label can be extremely misleading, and recommendations based on holistic nutrition.
1) Serving size: serving size and portion size are two very different things. For example a bottle of iced tea may have two servings per bottle. The typical portion you will likely consume is the entire bottle. Therefore you are consuming twice as much as the label describes.
2) Calories: calories are a measure of energy. Not all calories are made the same! This is why simply counting calories is not sustainable. Our bodies are very complex! Different foods go through different biological pathways, take different amounts of energy to digest, and have different effects on our hormones and brain. Think about it- is 100 calories of ice cream the same as 100 calories of broccoli?
3) Fats: the verdict is out and many studies are showing that healthy fats are not the culprits of high cholesterol and weight gain. Healthy fats are crucial to our hormone development, cell wall structure, brain health, and much much more.
The fats you want to avoid are trans fats – these are processed so that normally liquid vegetable oils turn out solid. The primary source of these little boogers is partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats ARE linked to heart disease and weight gain, luckily the FDA has deemed PHOs unsafe and are requiring companies to stop putting these oils in their food by mid 2018.
Saturated fats often come from animal fat (lard, butter, eggs, etc) but also coconut and palm oil. These fats are considered healthy fats and are instrumental to our health.
Unsaturated fats have been shown to decrease inflammation and reduce heart disease, but not all unsaturated fats are made the same. There are polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.
-Polyunsaturated fats often contain high levels of Omega 6, which is already overly abundant in high grain diets and leads to more inflammation. Some polyunsaturated fats contain Omega 3s- for example in fish, seeds and nuts – these have been shown to decrease inflammation.
-Monounsaturated fats that come from olive, peanut and avocado oil have many health benefits.
Vegetable oils are extremely processed - the oils are chemically removed, deodorized, and heated, are manufactured by GMO crops that are heavily treated with pesticides, and are highly inflammatory.
4) Cholesterol: cholesterol and fats are buddies and we need both to function. Here’s the thing only 20-25% of the cholesterol in our body comes from our diet, the rest is made in our liver. Most of the cholesterol in food cannot be absorbed by our digestive tracts and is excreted as bile from our gallbladder into our feces. When it comes to heart health, it is more important to pay attention to which type of fats and how much sugar we are consuming.
5) Sodium: just like anything in life moderation is best. Sodium is a vital nutrient that helps to maintain our plasma levels, nourishes our tissues and nervous system and is needed for cellular metabolism. When the kidneys are healthy, they are able to regulate our sodium and fluid concentration and react to what we eat, so healthy people are generally able to adapt to increased salt intake without changes to blood pressure. Another important dietary player in this sodium regulation system is potassium. Generally we do not consume enough potassium to counter balance the amount of salt we eat. The more potassium we eat, the more sodium we lose through urine. As long as your renal function is not compromised, salt intake between 4000-6000mg per day is safe for most people. When choosing salt try and choose sea salt, which is high in other trace minerals.
6) Total Carbohydrates: the standard American diet is overloaded with non-nutritive carbs like refined sugar, white flour and other processed foods. Healthy carbohydrates come from grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. The most problematic source of carbs for our health is refined grains. There are plenty of whole-grains that can be beneficial to certain people such as: whole rye, quinoa, barley, millet, and other ancient grains. Grains, beans and nuts are best utilized by our body when they are soaked or sprouted.
7) Fiber: there are two forms of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber is not digestible or absorbable and does not provide the body with any necessary nutrition, but is necessary for bulking and moving stool. If eaten in excess though, insoluble fiber can bind to minerals and carry them out of the body. Soluble fiber is mostly found in whole plant foods and helps to feed our friendly gut bacteria, which then release beneficial fatty acids. All in all, both insoluble and soluble fiber should be coming from whole food plant sources like yams, sweet potatoes, green leafy veggies, carrots and other root veggies and not fortified, or added, into food.
8) Sugar: sugar is sugar is sugar. Doesn’t matter if it is organic cane sugar or processed white sugar, both will cause similar biochemical responses. High fructose corn syrup on the other hand causes a significantly greater rise in blood sugar compared to table sugar and is linked to weight gain, diabetes and high cholesterol. Generally, it is best to significantly limit your sugar consumption. The only exception to this rule is whole fruit, which contains other beneficial nutrients and fiber that helps to slow down the metabolism of the naturally occurring sugars.
Here is a list of the different words food companies can use for added sugars:
Anhydrous dextrose, cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, syrup, carbitol, concentrated fruit juice, corn sweetener, diglycerides, disaccharides, evaporated cane juice, erythritol, Florida crystals, fructooligosaccharides, galactose, glucitol, glucoamine, hexitol, inversol, isomalt, maltodextrin, malted barley, malts, mannitol, nectars, pentose, raisin syrup, ribose rice syrup, rice malt, rice syrup solids, sorbitol, sorghum, sucanat, sucanet, and zylose.
9) Protein: protein is the most filling of all these nutrients. Our brains have adapted to crave protein when we need it and to not crave it when we do not. Protein has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar and for this reason should be eaten in combination with any sugary foods. Increasing protein consumption while decreasing the consumption of carbohydrates from grains has been shown to be effective in losing weight. There are a couple of situations in which you would want to consume less protein: kidney disease and pregnancy.
Ingredients to avoid: MSG, high fructose corn syrup, food colorings, partially hydrogenated or fractionated oils, aspartame or aminosweet, artificial flavors, potassium and sodium benzoates, potassium sorbate, BHA and BHT