Nutrition 911, Part
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The 411 To Avoid a Dietary 911
Part I of our
emergency nutrition class, we discussed why natural foods are better than
processed foods and covered a few of the terms you see in your grocery aisle,
including organic, grass fed, farm raised, and cage free. This month, we'll
jump right into the two biggest advertising slogans you see these days: fat
free and low carb. Just what do these terms actually mean to you?
We'll start with fat free
because it was popular first. The dreaded "f" word is sorely misused out there
in foodopia. About the only thing most of us really know about it is when we
have too much on our body. Fat is a colloquial term for looking more like
Kirstie Alley of the TV show Fat Actress than Kirstie Alley of the
'80s slacker comedy Summer School. Fat is also one of the key
nutrients that we must eat in order for our bodies to keep functioning. And
this is where the association problem begins.
Assuming we're fat because
we eat too much fat, marketers decided that by making foods without fat we'd be
less fat. This might work if, oh, nutrition was as simple as 1+1.
Unfortunately, it's not. It's a science, requiring things like math 'n' stuff
that we don't have time for here. All we have time for here is to say this is
wrong. If you don't eat fat, you will die a miserable death. Fat, among other
things, is vital for proper function of our endocrine system. You might not
know what this is, but, basically, it regulates our body's day-to-day
But this "theory" has some
bearing on real life. Fat is nutrient dense. This means that by volume it has
more calories than other nutrients. In fact, it's about twice as dense as other
foods. So you should eat a lot less fat than other things or you might get
twice as large. Fat also tends to taste good, so it's easy to crave. We don't
need much of it, but we like to eat a lot of it. Starting to see the issue?
There is not just a marketing idea, but also a market for low-fat products.
Essentially there are two
types of "fat free" or "low fat" labels: those on animal products and those on
packaged products. Let's start with the animals, because it's simpler.
Fat-free dairy products
and low-fat meats simply have their fat removed. There are different types of
fat, which we'll get to later. Animal products tend to have what's called
saturated fat. We need only a very small amount of this to survive. If we eat a
lot of animal products, we can easily get too much, leading to high cholesterol
levels and other assorted problems. The relatively simple step of removing fat
does not take away from these foods' nutrient values. It just gives you less
Fat-free packaged foods
are a whole other matter. Things like cookies, candy, chips, peanut butter,
etc. must be scrutinized because the fat is usually just replaced by another
ingredient. It's often sugar, which is usually as badif not
worsefor you. In some cases, it's extreme. Peanut butter, for example, is
loaded with fat, but most of it is unsaturated fats your body can use.
"Low-fat" versions usually include a lot of sugar, and sometimes trans fats,
which are manmade fats that have no place in your diet. So the low-fat
trade-off means you're actually eating worse! There there's candy, which
sometimes sports a "fat free" label, as if not having fat is a perfectly good
excuse to fill yourself full of gummy bears. Using this type of logic, why not
consider crack? It gives you a lot of energy and, after all, it's fat free!
Bottom line: Fat free
and low fat can be okay, especially in animal products. "Fat-free" doesn't mean
"sugar-free." Learn to read labels. There's often more to the story. Some fat
Following the astonishing
success of "fat free," the "low carb" label hit our shelves a few years back
with all guns blazing. Virtually no labels are left unturned. You now might see
a "low carb" moniker on just about anything, from meat, to rice, to beer. Some
foods warrant this, but, in most cases, it's absurd marketing jargonit
makes the aforementioned "fat-free" slogan look like a paragon of advertising
honesty. We're talking "Swamp land in Florida for sale" territory here. Let's
look at the worst offenders.
veggies. Meats don't have any carbs, so when a meat product advertises "low
carb," it's like boasting that your cat doesn't bark. Veggies, though, are
mainly carbs. However, they have very few calories. So few, that low cal should
be their trademark, but, instead, they'd rather promote low carb. Water, with
no calories, would also fit this bill, but I haven't seen low-carb water yet,
or have I?
Alcohol. This is probably the most
misleading label claim running today. A beer, for example, has around 12 grams
of carbs. A low-carb beer may have 5, so you're getting about 25 to 30 calories
fewer, hence those commercial with the finger treadmills to burn off all the
extra carbs in regular beer. But both have alcohol, which makes up most of be
calories in beer. While technically not a carb, it has a similar impact on your
metabolism and almost twice the calories. So low-carb alcohols are a misnomer.
Sure, they're all technically low carb, but they do the same thing to your
system that you are avoiding carbs for in the first place. It's 100% gimmick.
other sweets. We've now come up with all sorts of concoctions to avoid
dreaded carbs. Two popular additions are artificial sweeteners and sugar
alcohols. Basically, these are substances that aren't really food, have had no
long-term testing, and should not be a major part of your diet unless you like
living dangerously for something with very little upside.
Starches. You can now find low-carb
versions of all of the carb-laden foods from the past. Companies like Atkins
have low-carb bread, pasta, and are probably well on their way to harvesting a
low-carb potato. Some of these changes are positive. Chips, for example, are
junk in the first place, and most of the low-carb options are healthier.
However, changing breads and pastas are altering ingredients in a way that may
or may not benefit you. You see, you need carbs in order for your body to
function properly, especially your muscles and your brain. So if you are
active, and like to think, you don't want to cut carbs out of your diet. The
trick with carbs is to eat only as many as you can burn off because your body
can't store them. It's only excessive carb consumption that will make you fat.
With that in mind, we don't need a genetically altered potato. What we need it
to take more care in making our food choices in the first place.
Bottom line: Low-carb
labels are completely unnecessary. It's either spin doctoring or altering a
food that you shouldn't be consuming in the first place. With minimal knowledge
of how to eat, you can strike the words "low carb" from your
Other Odd Label Claims
onto the bandwagon we find "antioxidant" teas, cancer-fighting calciums,
immune-boosting juices, and so on and so forth. It's nearly endless.
Practically every health claim that you see on a label should be ignored unless
you're in the drug store. What's happening is that manufacturers' marketing
departments are latching on to any bit of research that shows something
positive and spinning it right off the ol' turntable. For example, tea contains
polyphenols, an antioxidant. Always has, always will (unless we alter it), but
it's not just Lipton any longer, it's "antioxidant" tea! If your diet lacks
calcium, you have a higher risk of cancer, as well as an entire cornucopia of
maladies since calcium is essential for human existence, so now it's
"cancer-fighting." It goes on and on. These claims are not always bogus, by any
means. Tea and calcium are great. But it sheds some light on a potential
problem if you believe anything you read.
Bottom line: The best
defense is a good offense. The more you understand about nutrition, the less
likely you are to be duped. Learning to read a food label is a great place to
So next time, we'll
discuss how to read a
food label and why you want to eat fat, protein, and carbs.