Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Reading Labels...you can do it!!
I know it’s not the most joyous part of grocery shopping, it slows you down, makes you think, and often conflict arises over what you might be craving and what you ultimately know is not good for you.
We’ve all been there and go there still, so don’t stress about it, start small and make better decisions one box, package, carton at a time!
My goal here is to explain some aspects of labels for you as best I can, so that at a glance you can decide for yourself whether the product is really worth while.
First and foremost know what you are looking at or for on the label. A product may say “per 100g or per 60g serving”. Now it is up to you to check the package and see just how many grams are actually in your product. For example: A bag of Chips/Crisps may say ‘per 100g serving’ but the bag contains 325g, this is where you need to maybe do a visual test for yourself and dump the crisps out, put them into equal piles so you can see what a ⅓ of the bag really looks like. Do it once just for fun and don’t try it with a jar of pickles or something silly.
It’s a good habit to get into because once you have an idea of a measurement you don’t have to keep thinking about it. Your brain will remember what a ½ cup of oatmeal looks like in a bowl, or what 100g of cereal looks like (not very much) and you will be able to better gauge your portions without all the fuss of measurements.
Claims to be mindful of:
Calories - High or Low Calories is your choice but it’s one we have all been told to pay attention to and for good reason. This is the Macronutrient intake that you need to burn as many as, or less of, to keep yourself within a weight range suited to your height. I don’t agree with the BMI scale so we won’t go there...since muscle weighs more than fat they can’t account for all body types. Just know that if you are consuming a lot of calories, nutrient dense or not, and not burning them off it will lead to weight gain.
Calories can be classed as Nutrient Dense or Empty for simplicity sake. Nutrient Dense are the type of Calories you’ll get from Nuts, Avocados, Rice, Quinoa, Full Fat Dairy products etc. Empty calories are the type that come from Sweets, Chips/Crisps, White bread or buns, Fizzy Drinks, etc. As a general rule of thumb try not to exceed more than 500 calories per meal or snack in a day and you should stay right around the recommended 2000 calorie a day intake.
*Example Only for tricky no label items - Plain Scone from your local Filling Station or Grocer, excluding butter/jam (4).
Average Dietary Intake: Calories 408cal - Sugar 20g (5 sugar cubes) - Salt 2.1g (daily intake should not exceed 4g) - Fat 11.6g.
Now I hate to say it but add a cuppa tea or coffee with cream and sugar, or worse yet a fizzy drink, and you could easily reach 2 meals worth of calories and sugar in one.
High Fiber - Ok so how high is high fiber and how much do you need?
On average women should be getting 21-25g daily and Men 30-38g (1). 2.5 - 4.9g per serving is a good amount to aim for (2).
There are 2 types; Soluble, the type that dissolves in water and can help to lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugars. Found in Oats, Apples, Carrots, Peas, Beans and Citrus Fruits as some examples. Insoluble, this is the kind that promotes bulk in your stools and helps with the movement. Whole-Wheat Bran and Flour, Vegetables, Nuts, Potatoes and Beans are just some examples of this form (See 10 Health & Nutrition Tips post for more info).
Set yourself up right for the day with a high fiber breakfast of oats, chia, flax or linseed, a sprinkle of pumpkin or sunflower seeds, half a banana or berries and a dash of cinnamon. Or try eggs on wholegrain, sourdough or rye bread (often these breads have 3-5g of fiber per serving). Fiber helps slow digestion keeping you feeling fuller longer and making transit times more regular so it’s a win win!
Bars like Fibre One 90 Calorie Chocolate Fudge Brownies are an example of where not to get your fibre since they also contain approx. 35 ingredients and you probably can’t even imagine the amount of processing those ingredients have gone through!
Low Fat - Ok so this is a loaded one and I’m not going to delve too deep for the sake of this post. The point I would stress here is that when buying low fat, look at the sugar content. Often this will go up as the fat goes down and for many reasons you are NOT better off with low fat. Fat gives us essential fatty acids our bodies cannot make, helps up absorb vitamins A,D,E and K and is a component of cell walls, all part of keeping you healthy and functioning your best.
Fat from Dairy, Avocados, Nuts, Seeds, and the likes of Olive oil is not your enemy and will actually be a lot more beneficial for your body than your low fat option. Now don’t go crazy on the “good” fats either as Fat in general is more calorie dense (45 calories per 5g of fat), and so this is where the weight gain can arise. A person of “average” size and weight (give or take 15 lb or a stone) should be getting approximately 44-77g of fat a day on a 2000 calorie diet (3).
High Protein - Don’t be fooled by this one, a Protein Mars bar is not a good option no matter how much protein they have packed into it. We are not lacking protein in our diets, it’s a cash grab for the most part. The average person requires .8g of protein for every 1kg of body weight, that often works out between 45-65g of protein a day give or take. Nuts, seeds, lean meats, fish, dairy, oats, whole grain breads, wholewheat pasta, tofu, and quinoa are all great healthy sources of protein that will get you your daily needs. Vegetables also contain protein in smaller amounts and are even more beneficial sources considering all the vitamins and minerals they also bring with them.
Beans, Peas, Brussel Sprouts, Broccoli, Sweet Corn, Button Mushrooms and Spinach all contain 3-6g or protein per 1 cup cooked (5). Check out reference 5 for more info on this. Nuts are another good option for fat and protein but be careful with portion sizes as they are very high in calories as well. Try a can of tuna on rye bread, chicken salad sandwich on wholegrain, broccoli salad with feta cheese, tofu, seeds, and balsamic dressing or a bowl of oatmeal with chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Your home grown, naturally healthy protein options are endless once you start to understand sources. Avoid protein bars if you can, they may have protein but they also have more ingredients you don’t want then ingredients you do.
Sodium - This is one that is beginning to become an issue for many people, driving Cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure. It’s the sneakiest additive and often a very overlooked one but for the sake of your heart you might want to start taking note of where it’s hidden in your diet (Scone example above is one).
As stated in the FSAI’s Science of Salt & Health “The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1.6g/70 mmol sodium (4g salt) per day for adults. Over 90% of the sodium in the diet is in the form of sodium chloride (salt); 1g of sodium is equivalent to 2.54g of salt ” (6). The findings have shown that the average adult in Ireland is consuming 10g per day, that’s over double the recommended intake!!
So where is your salt and how can you be more aware? Ok well it’s in a lot of your packaged goods, from Granola bars to Crisps, it’s in your baked goods like scones, it’s extremely high in take-aways, especially Chinese (no msg added just means they haven’t added more to the already high amounts). Then there is your own consumption at home on potatoes, sandwiches, in meal prep, maybe even in the “healthy snacks” you buy like nuts...you should always get the unsalted version.
Sodium is everywhere and a hard one to avoid so all I will suggest to you here is to be mindful, if the product has more than .2 - .5g per serving have a think about your serving size and if it’s worth ingesting that much additional sodium for the sake of flavour. Your taste buds will adjust to less salt or less sweet if you want them to, just takes a bit of time and effort.
Label Examples to hopefully help you along…Now I could have put of pics of a dozen labels with descriptions on what to look at on each but honestly I think it would have been overwhelming and you won’t remember it all anyway.
Start small by doing the following:
- Pick items with ingredients you can pronounce and know what they are. If you don’t know a word and your about to ingest it, have a google first PLEASE.
- Try to keep it to 12 ingredients or less, we didn’t get this far up the evolution chain eating processed foods that slow us down mentally and physically.
- Do a little measuring, just at first to get an idea of portion sizes, you’ll be amazed and it will really help you to gauge what you need on your plate.
- IGNORE Best Before dates on Fruit or Vegetables...seriously if it’s not moldy or brown or wilted it’s perfectly fine to eat. You think the food industry used expiration dates for your benefit? Think again!! It’s just a way to keep turnover going on consumers spending.
- Avoid ‘Vegetable Oils’ as they are hydrogenated oils that increase Saturated Fatty Acids and your risk of raising cholesterol, elevating the potential for coronary risks later in life.
1. (Mayo Clinic, no author, 2018) ‘Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet, 2018’. Published online by the Mayo Clinic Staff, 2018. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983
2. (Zelman, K. 2011) ‘Fiber: How Much Do I Need?’ Published online by WebMd, 2011. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/fiber-how-much-do-you-need#1
3. (The Cleveland Clinic, no author, 2014) ‘Fat: What you need to know’ Published online by the Cleveland Clinic, 2014. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11208-fat-what-you-need-to-know
4. (Food Standards Agency, no author, 2018) ‘Nutritional Content of Scones’ Published online by the Food Standards Agency in conjunction with EHNI, 2018. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/nutritional-content-of-scones-report_0.pdf
5. (Whitbread, D. 2019) ‘Top 10 Vegetables Highest in Protein’. Published online by MyFoodData, 2019. Available at: https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/vegetables-high-in-protein.php
6. (Food Standards Agency of Ireland, no author, 2016) ‘The Science of Salt & Health’ Published online by the FSAI 2106. Available at: https://www.fsai.ie/science_and_health/salt_and_health/the_science_of_salt_and_health.html