How to Navigate a Food Label
What makes us sick?
When I say sick, I’m referring to obesity; lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar; in addition to general physical or psychological malaise.
Do we get sick because we consume too many carbohydrates, fats or proteins? Or is it the result of a genetic predisposition that is expressed by inactivity, stress, or poor lifestyle choices? What about nutrient deficiency, inflammation, and disease? Throw in a food system that encourages the overconsumption of highly rewarding, addictive foods it becomes increasingly difficult to distill the source of all our ills.
As hard as it may be to identify the source of our dwindling health, I believe we, the consumers, are responsible for our own health and wellbeing. A lack of consideration or concern for how food impacts the body is the primary reason we are sicker, fatter, and more mentally unstable than ever before.
The only way to halt the current health crisis is to educate and empower ourselves to make the right dietary decisions in order to better support our unique nutrient needs and health goals.
In an Ideal World
Improved nutrition and health starts with a diet that is founded upon real foods. Whole foods are those that are eaten in a form similar to that which they are grown or raised. Apples, carrots, chicken thighs and skirt steak are a few of my favorites, but there is an endless variety of real foods that will help us get healthy, happy, and free from modern disease.
For those of us with a history of substance abuse, real foods are absent the highly rewarding substances that can contribute to addictive behavior, cravings, withdrawals and, potentially, relapse.
After adopting a real food diet, we must emphasize the consumption of fresh, seasonal vegetables. I know its tempting to stick with familiar meats, grains, nuts and seeds and say that we are eating only the realest of foods, but fresh vegetables are THE ideal source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which promote numberous health benefits. The ones that immediately come to mind are reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes whilst lowering blood pressure and remedying GI dysfunction. Using nutrient density as our guide, raw leafy green vegetables like kale, chard, and spinach should stay at the top of our priorities list followed closely by non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels, onions, and garlic.
It’s no coincidence that I chose these particular vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are uniquely capable of supporting liver health and detoxification, which is particularly important for those in recovery.
Finally, we should only eat as much as our body requires. This is often harder than it would seem because we are each biochemically unique, but if we eating real foods, the most of which are fresh vegetables, eating to meet our energy needs should pretty much work itself out on its own. Real foods, especially vegetables, are full of nourishing micronutrients and fiber that automatically shut down hunger signals and reduce appetite.
A great way of summarizing these three suggestions into one concrete philosophy is to simply, “AVOID PROCESSED FOODS AT ALL COSTS!”
Unfortunately, doing so may not be realistic in today’s fast-paced, convenience and value driven society where few have the time, energy or resources to plan and prepare every meal at home with real foods. Even the most dedicated healthy eaters and nutrition enthusiasts, myself included, sometimes rely upon or indulge in processed foods.
The Reality of the Situation
The good news is that not all foods that come in a box are inherently bad. Of course, there are shades of grey, but where we get in trouble is when they are used out of context or in blatant disregard of their ability to interact with the body in potentially problematic ways.
So, how do we know the difference between “good” and “bad” processed foods?
First, you have to an open relationship with your body and know what helps or hinders its function. Then you have to consume foods that adequately nourish that relationship. Recognizing that the consumption of processed foods may be an inevitable in most of our lives, we must learn how to properly identify such foods that nourish the food-body relationship and promote health. The only to accomplish this is to learn how to properly navigate a food label so that we can develop a healthy eating routine regardless of time, energy, or financial constraint.
All qualms with the current food label aside, looking at three specific values will help us determine a food’s value and what role it may take in our healthy eating plan.
The first place to look is fiber content. We want fiber content to be as high as possible, preferably over 5 grams per serving. Fiber is important because it makes us feel more satisfied, improves bowel regularity, and feeds our beneficial gut bacteria that are responsible for the production of a few very important nutrients.
Next, sugar. We want sugars to be as low as possible, preferably lower than 5 grams per serving. Many believe that added sugars, not fat, are the reason why we are sicker and fatter than our ancestors and that we should avoid them as much as possible. Since we are not yet able to determine if these sugars are from natural sources or if they were added during the production process, the safest thing to do is go as low as possible.
I know it’s old news, but its worth mentioning that minimizing or completely eliminating added sugars from our diet while continuing to eat packaged foods is going to get a whole lot easier if the FDA’s recent food labeling proposal goes through, which will hopefully happen by the end of this year.
Finally, always look at the serving size and servings per container information. It is easy to overindulge in packaged foods, healthy or not, and consuming too many calories holds tremendous influence over our health and wellbeing. Also, serving size is the basis of the information presented below so it makes perfect sense to eat amounts consistent with your perception of a food’s value.
There are many other things that we can look for when purchasing processed foods, but developing a food philosophy that occasionally includes processed foods that maximize fiber, minimize sugar, and allow us to keep consumption on par with serving size suggestions is a simple way to get started in improving health and wellbeing.
In a perfect world, we would have all the time, energy, and resources necessary to eat real foods all the time. Unfortunately, the perfect world isn’t always reality and we may sometimes rely upon or indulge in processed goods. However, by learning to properly navigate a food label and pinpointing fiber and sugar content and determining the appropriate serving sizes, we can eat better, improve health, and live a longer and happier life.