How to Eat Food: Making Sense of Food Labels

Saving money is one of my goals. Improving my health is another. These two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, eating a healthy, low-added sugar diet can be very affordable. In this post we talk about reading food labels and eating real food.

Welcome to another Wellness Wednesday feature. I am participating in a 12-week wellness class and chronicling my journey. Each Wednesday, I summarize what I learned that week and how I implemented it into my life. Week 1 was about the SAD Standard American Diet. Week 2 was Physical Activity Basics, during which we learned suggestions on how to increase our activity level. Week 3 is about reading food labels.

Grocery shopping sounds easy. We all do it. The problem is that stores are filled with so many processed items that it can be hard to eat a diet based on real food.

A Brief History of Processed Food

  • 1940s first mass-produced processed food (M&Ms) is distributed to soldiers fighting during WWII
  • Instant coffee becomes second mass-produced processed item, also distributed to soldiers
  • 1950s, the War is over and electrical appliances are making their way to homes across America, changing the way we cook
  • Fast food is also gaining popularity in the USA during the 1950s and 1960s
  • 1956 TV dinners are all the rage
  • 1994 now that so much of what we eat is not real food that can be found in nature, companies are required to put labels on food so we know what the heck we are eating (not that we understand what many of the ingredients are)
  • 2020 new food labels required; changes include listing how much Added Sugar there is per serving as well as more realistic serving sizes

Processed Foods and Obesity

With the rise in processed foods (including convenience items such as TV dinners as well as fast-food), incidents of obesity as well as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer also increased.

A trend for fat-free (yet still processed) foods started to take hold. But to make “fat-free” foods taste good, more sugar was added.

Not surprisingly, we were still obese. So the next trend was for sugar-free “foods.” To make these products taste okay, more artificial sweeteners entered our food system.

And we’re still struggling with obesity.

The problem is, we’re still not eating food. Nearly everything that comes in a package has added sugar in one form or another.

Many people think the culprit is “carbs.” But carbohydrates and natural sugars are not only necessary for our survival, they are also found in real food. Rather than looking at carbs or sugar, we should be avoiding foods with added sugars. Added sugars are in most of the processed foods we buy.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Carbs and Natural vs. Added Sugar

Sugar and carbohydrates are actually part of a healthy diet. If we cut out sugar, then we have to remove fruits which contain the naturally occurring sugar fructose. If we remove carbohydrates from our diets, then we have to eliminate vegetables. Dairy products also contain the naturally occurring sugar lactose. It’s the sugars that are added to products (i.e., processed foods) that I am most worried about.

By 2020, food labels will need to contain a new line under carbohydrates to inform how much added sugar products contain. Many companies have already implemented this change.

Can of soda with 39g of added sugar

We only need 24 grams of sugar a day. If you have one can of soda or just three cookies, you are already over the recommended amount for the entire day! (One 12 oz can of soda has 39 g of added sugar).

Reading Food Labels

Here are some tips to keep in mind when reading food labels:

look for items without food labels

Remember that real food (e.g., fruits, vegetables, meats) doesn’t need a food label.

Check serving size

I was comparing calories and sugars in soda and lemonade. I thought that lemonade had less of each per serving. Then I realized that a serving of soda was 12 oz while a serving of lemonade was 8 oz. Soda actually had fewer calories and sugar per ounce.

Note the calories

Most labels are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. However, many people do not need that many calories. Some women may need as few as 1,600 calories a day.*

*My dietician recommends 1,500-1,600 calories per day for women with moderate levels of activity. See this chart on WedMD for estimated caloric needs based on sex, age, and activity level, and check with your physician or dietician about your individual needs.

1,600 calories goes fast! Three meals of 500 calories plus two 100 calorie snacks, and you’ve already had more than you need. Some meals (especially restaurant meals) have more calories in one meal than your body needs for an entire day!

Pay attention to fats, cholesterol, and sodium

Remember the 5 and 20 rule, which states that if an item has 5% or less of something, it’s a poor source of that nutrient and 20% or more is a good source.

If there’s something you want to limit (such as fat, cholesterol, and sodium), my dietician recommended looking for items than contain 5% or less of your daily value per serving (and stick to one serving).

Look for Fiber, vitamins, and minerals

Again using the 5 and 20 rule, if it’s something you want more of (such as fiber and nutrients), look for items than contain 20% or more of your daily value per serving.

Review the Quality of Carbohydrates

Remember that not all carbs are bad. Dietary fiber (which you may want more of) is included under carbs, but so are added sugars (which we want less of).

Read the Ingredient List

Aim for foods that have 5 ingredients or fewer.

Look for added sugar in all its forms.

Remember that just because something says it’s “free” doesn’t mean it has none. Items can be labeled “free” if they contain <5 calories, <5 mg sodium, <2 mg of cholesterol, or 0.5 grams of fat (including saturated fat or trans fat) or sugar. So don’t assume you can eat more of something just because it’s calorie, sugar, or fat-free.

Healthier Choices Can Save Money

I am a firm believer that eating healthy does not have to be expensive. Some of the least expensive foods are also the healthiest. Carrots, celery, potatoes, beans, bananas, and apples cost mere cents per serving.

It’s the processed and prepared items (e.g., TV dinners, deli items, chips, cookies) that are expensive.

Many of my tips for saving money on groceries also pertain to buying healthier foods:

  • Shop the periphery of the store

    Photo by NRD on Unsplash
  • Make or grow yourself before buying
  • Eat before you go shopping and stick to your list
  • Beware of items at eye-level or on end-caps (companies pay for premium space, which is often unhealthy and overpriced foods)
  • Vote with your dollars when you shop by choosing minimally processed foods

My Challenge This Week

My challenge this week was to eat more real foods and fewer processed items. I did this by focusing on foods that do not need labels. Of the items that do come prepackaged, I read the labels and tried to avoid those with added sugar (which is easier said than done).

Comparing food labels

I was shocked at what I read on food labels.

Diced peaches

The diced peaches my son takes to school have 18 g of sugars. But if you look at the list of ingredients, no sugar has been added and it has 0% daily value for fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Although there is “sugar,” because it’s fruit in its own juice, it makes for a healthy snack.

Diced peaches, no sugar added
Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

On the other hand, the “Natural concord grape spread” with “no high fructose corn syrup” that my kids eat everyday has 10 g of sugar. In this example, sugar is the second ingredient on the list after grapes. Sugar is needed to make jelly, but if you are trying to cut back on added sugar, be mindful of the PB&J sandwiches.

Peanut Butter also has 3 g of sugar (2 g of added sugars) and 2 slices of bread have 2 g of added sugar.

Instead of PB&J sandwiches, I switched to a piece of fruit and a serving of nuts for lunch.

Natural grape spread. Sugar is 2nd ingredient
Salad Dressings

Lite Creamy Caesar dressing has 90 calories, 8 g fat, 320 mg sodium, and 1 g of sugar.

“Lite” Creamy Caesar dressing

Compare this with the Lite Italian, which contains half the calories, nearly half the fat, less sodium, 0 mg of cholesterol, and 0 g of sugar.

Lite Italian dressing

My kids love eating crackers. We recently made the switch from cheese-flavored crackers to wheat crackers. The cheese-flavored crackers don’t have any added sugars, but they have a long list of ingredients. Wheat crackers have some added sugar, but also has more fiber and only 6 ingredients.

Compare the length of the ingredients for these two crackers
Trail Mix

While I tend to not eat processed foods, I do always keep trail mix at work. After reviewing the (very long) list of ingredients and nutritional information, I made a switch to Almonds. Compared to trail mix, Almonds have more protein and fiber and 10 fewer grams of sugar per serving.

Photo by Juan Jose Valencia Antia on Unsplash
5-20 rule

Not surprisingly, few of these items that came in a package had 20% daily value of the “good stuff.” After reading all the food labels in my home, here are the winners:

A block of Parmesan cheese has 35% daily amount of Calcium (but there’s only 6% calcium per serving in pre-grated cheese).

Peanut butter contains 30% daily value of Niacin per serving.

Veggie burgers contain 25% daily value Vitamin A and 18% Fiber per serving.

Carb counter whole wheat wraps contain 43% daily value of Fiber per serving.

Whole grain popping corn has 21% Fiber.

My Progress this Week

Although I didn’t lose any weight this week, I also didn’t gain any. My mood is better and I am feeling more fit. I have more energy, having slept well each night, and feel myself gaining strength.
My Meals and snacks this week included
  • Tortellini soup made with homemade broth and fresh spinach
  • Pasta and homemade marinara sauce
  • Taco salad (ground turkey breast seasoned with homemade taco seasoning served over fresh spinach with tomatoes grown from my garden and topped with vegetarian cheese)
  • Apples
  • And yes, I did order a pizza. After looking up the Nutrition Information online, I learned that one slice of a large pizza (no meat) has 300 calories! This inspired me to eat smaller portions.
Physical activity this week included
  • Arm strengthening exercises while watching TV
  • Walking and taking stairs during lunchtime with a friend
  • My first week of Couch to 5K!
    • I have never been a runner and I am so proud of myself for the progress to date. Sure I’m only jogging 2-3 minutes a day at this point in the program, but for a couch potato like me it’s a good start!
Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Although I’ve reached a plateau this week after having lost 7 pounds, I am feeling better physically and emotionally. Paying better attention to food labels has opened my eyes. Choices I was making for myself and my kids that I thought were healthier (such as lemonade over soda) turned out to actually not be much better.

Remember, real food doesn’t need a Nutrition Facts label. Vote with your dollars by choosing minimally processed food.

Join us for the next Wellness Wednesday feature on the snack attack.

What are you eating this week?

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