One of the main things to get right if you want your fitness journey to be successful, is nutrition. While it is ideal (and highly impractical) to only eat home cooked meals made from farm fresh produce and whole foods, we will need to venture out to the supermarket or corner store to pick up some shelf essentials or the occasional snack. Assuming that you do buy things from the store, how do you pick one product over another or one brand of product over another? Most people look at the front of the packaging and get drawn in by the big, flashy claims on it (“No added sugar”, “50% less carbs”, “99% fat free”, “Multigrain goodness”) or worse still by the colours and fancy packaging. While I do admit nice packaging does draw the eye, the buying decision needs to be based on something more substantial. This is where the ingredient and nutrition label comes in and learning to read and understand it will not only help you make smarter choices but will also help you considerably in your fitness journey.
The first thing you need to train yourself to look at is the list of ingredients. In general, a product with a shorter ingredient list is almost always better than a product with a longer ingredient list (depending on what you’re buying of course). Equally important is the order in which the ingredients are listed. They are listed in their order by weight i.e. the ingredient that is most abundant is listed first. For example if you’re buying whole wheat bread, the first ingredient should be whole wheat flour, naturally. While it seems fairly obvious, if you look at the ingredient lists of some of the whole wheat breads found in a supermarket you will probably find most of them have listed wheat flour (not whole wheat flour and there’s a big difference) and other refined flours as the main ingredients. The packaging may say whole wheat bread (and they may have added some tiny bit of whole wheat flour to comply) but it is only when you look at the ingredients list that you know for sure if it actually is whole wheat bread.
Another thing to look for when you look at the ingredients is to scan for undesirable ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, certain (or all) artificial sweeteners etc.
Serving Size and number of servings
Most nutrition facts are based on the serving size specified in the label. And in a lot of cases the serving size specified on products are ridiculously small, for example one cookie or five pieces of chips etc. Manufacturers do this to make their products appear to be “healthier” or lower in calories than they actually are. Many people are unaware of serving sizes and assume the nutrition facts specified are for the entire container whereas in reality each container could be a multiple of it. So be aware of the serving size and the number of servings in the container and to know the real value of what you’ve eaten, multiply the nutrition value by the number of servings you have eaten.
This is probably the first thing most people look up and while it is important, it doesn’t tell us the whole story. For example manufacturers use tricks such as small serving sizes to keep the calories indicated on the packaging low. Further, foods that contain a lot of nutritional value could be higher in calories which isn’t always a bad thing. The important thing is to consider the nutritional label as a whole to figure out if the product is for you and if it fits your lifestyle.
All fats are not created equal. You want to make sure that there are no trans fats in the product. Sometimes the label might state 0 trans fats but that’s not always true. If the ingredient label indicates hydrogenated oils then there are some trans fats in the product, just not enough to be required to be indicated on the nutrition label. If you have read the fitness myths post, you will know that fat free isn’t always a good thing, so beware.
Carbs, Sugars and Fibre
Carbohydrates have been named and shamed for a long time now. But the truth is carbs are an important source of energy and it is important to see where the carbs are coming from. A lot of whole foods contains complex carbs which have a good deal of fibre in them when compared to simple carbs such as sugar and refined flour. Carbs are further broken down into sugars and fibre on a nutrition label which can give us a good indication of the source of the carbs. Unfortunately sugars aren’t differentiated between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars (in a lot of labels). To figure this out you will still need to look at the ingredient list to see if there are any added sugars.
Carbs are not evil, just make sure you are getting your carbs from whole foods (complex carbs) rather than refined foods (simple carbs). You can figure this out by checking the amount of fibre as well as the ingredient list. If fibre is very low or non-existent for a carb heavy product then it definitely contains refined, simple carbs.
A product that is higher in protein tends to keep you satiated longer, this is the nature of proteins. The only thing to check as far as protein is concerned is the source of protein. To figure this out look at the ingredient list. If the source of protein is soy protein (normally genetically modified) it is preferable to stay away, especially if it’s a product you use on a daily basis.
When it comes to sodium in packaged foods, make sure it is as low as possible. A lot of packaged foods add sodium as a means to enhance the flavour of otherwise flavourless foods. Excess sodium increases blood pressure so choosing packaged foods low in sodium is preferable.
I believe these are the main things to look for and be aware of when choosing a packaged food item. Go forth and choose wisely.