best healthy eating tips, nutrition label

Nutrition labels: How to tell if a food is as healthy as you think

This week a crazy number of my conversations have followed the format below.

Really smart friend: I’ve been eating {insert healthy food} for a while now. It’s meant to be amazing and do so much for the body.

Me: I know the packaging claims it’s super healthy and everyone who’s anyone is eating it, but if you look at the ingredients label, {insert healthy food} is actually just {insert normal food}.

Really smart friend: *looks suspicious, Googles said ingredients label and promptly dies of shock*

 

The secret to healthy eating

 

Obviously nobody has actually died during these conversations. I exaggerate to make the point of this post: why do so many savvy people never check ingredients labels to see if they’re eating what they think they’re eating?

That’s the secret to nailing healthy eating.

Just read ingredients labels and ask yourself: do these ingredients match my health goals?

And if you don’t recognise the name of a listed ingredient, there’s no shame in Googling it… right in the middle of aisle three (I promise you that no-one cares what you’re doing, they’re too busy doing their own thing).

If you want to lose weight, common sense suggests that anything packed with sugar and fat (especially saturated) isn’t going to do you any favours… no matter how much sneaky marketeers claim otherwise.

You want younger looking skin? Stay away from sugar-laden foods and alcohol – deep down you know there’s zero chance that stuff is going to take years off your face.

I could go on, but no-one likes a smart ass. Instead here are my top tips for becoming a pro at spotting if a ‘healthy’ food is worth your time and money.

 

Best tips for understanding ingredient labels

 

Most of us look straight at calorie counts when we read food labels, but this isn’t the best place to start because in isolation they tell you nothing about the food.

Did you know that two maple pecan cinnamon buns from Cinnabon have the same number of calories as 26 eggs (2000 kcals)? But those eggs have infinitely more beneficial nutrients, like protein, vitamin D, and B vitamins, AND they’re less likely to lead to fat gain because they are low in sugar and carbohydrates (refined and natural). In contrast, two maple pecan cinnamon buns are high in refined sugar, packed with simple carbohydrates and devoid of virtually any nutrients.

This is just one example of the fact that calories are not what you need to focus on if you want to sculpt a lean and healthy body.

Instead, when looking at an ingredients list, simply ask yourself:

One: Are there more than five ingredients?

When you see a long list of ingredients, there’s a good chance that food has been highly processed. Remember that processed foods are associated with weight gain and diseases, like diabetes, simply because they contain more calories per gram than the unrefined version of the food (think a piece of fresh fruit versus a dried fruit bar OR a glass of chocolate milk versus a chocolate bar).

Two: Is sugar the first or second ingredient?

Ingredients are listed on food packets in order of weight. Therefore the first ingredient in the list is usually the one that’s most abundant in that food. If sugar is number one or two on the list, that food is not likely to be great for your waistline, heart health, skin, gut or body in general. And please don’t be fooled by natural sugars, like honey and maple syrup. Yes they’re natural, but they’re still sugar. Make sure these also don’t appear at the top of an ingredients list because they are high in fructose – the sugar molecule that gets stored as fat when eaten in excess.

Three: Are there any ingredients you don’t recognise as real natural foods?

It’s best to minimise consumption of foods with artificial chemicals because they often overstimulate the appetite and some have been shown to be harmful to the body. Artificial chemicals include preservatives, sweeteners and even added vitamins and minerals. The last point is contentious. I don’t avoid fortified foods like the plague, but I’ll always choose a whole food over a fortified one whenever possible. That’s because foods that have been fortified (usually baked goods, cereals and soft drinks) have usually been stripped of their nutrients during processing. That’s why companies then have to fortify them – to artificially replace the same nutrients they initially removed!

And that’s it… for now.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I’ll go into more tricks for telling if a food is as healthy as you think it is. In the meantime, hit me with any questions about ‘healthy’ foods you think are a little suss – just leave a comment below.

 

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