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Nutrition 911, Part Three - 5 Quick Steps to Mastering Food Labels

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Nutrition DataWelcome to part III of our oh-so basic nutrition class. So far, we've discussed marketing slogans and how they can affect your eating habits. Part I addressed the terms organic, grass fed, free range, and farm raised. Part II analyzed the ever-popular "fat free" and trendy "low carb" slogans. If we've made one conclusion, it's that we need to understand food labels in order to eat properly. Since we probably won't scrutinize each item we toss into our shopping cart, let's take the CliffsNotes approach.

Today's lesson: How to judge a food in 15 seconds or less!

You should learn how to read a label in depth because sometimes that's the only way to tell what you're really eating.

When in a rush, however, you can still greatly benefit from a cursory glance at a label. I can't tell you how many times I've decided to "just make sure" an item was as healthy as it appeared, only to find out it had an appalling amount of something I had no interest in eating. Here is my quickie checklist. These five steps will barely take enough time to slow the movement of the product from shelf to cart and will more than make up for it by extending your life on the back end.

Trans and Saturated Fats 1. Trans and saturated fat. In the USA, all packaged foods come with a Nutrition Facts label. The first place my eyes go is to the fat content. I draw my personal line in the sand at trans fat. We don't need it, and there is always another food option without it. Trans fat is man-made fat that comes from dubious preparation processes. If an item has any, it goes back on the shelf. Next, I look at saturated fat. We don't need much of it, and if we eat meat or dairy products, then we probably have met our requirement without it being in our other foods. Next to the number of grams, you'll see the percentage of your daily requirement it contains, eliminating the need for math. If that number is high, be wary. Of course you must evaluate what you're buying. Olive oil, for example, is a fat, so it's going to have a high number. However, you don't use much. Potato chips, on the other hand, would have a lower number, but you might eat the entire bag, so you should consider that. But that's obvious stuff, right?

No Sugar
2. Sugar. The grams from sugar are listed right below "Carbohydrates" near the top of the label. Get instantly suspicious if this number is high. Sports foods are supposed to have sugar because you want to quickly replace blood glycogen lost during exercise. All other foods don't need it. If you're buying a dessert item, you'll expect a high ratio of sugar, but for anything else you're probably getting a cheap product that's poorly produced. Remember that many "low fat" foods have a lot of sugar because it's not technically fat. It just makes you fat.

No Sodium
3. Sodium. Prepared foods are usually laden with sodium and you'll find the amount in plain sight high on the label. Often times, you can find an "organic, nonfat, low carb" purely healthy sounding food item that has over 1,000 mg of sodium, which is around half of your daily requirement. What you're generally looking for from these 3 "s" ingredients are a low number, and it only takes a few seconds to figure it out.

Fat, Protein and Carb Ratio

4. Fat, protein, and carbs ratio. Here's your first math test, but it's a simple one. When choosing a food, you probably already know a few things about it. If it's butter, you'll expect all fat; candy will be high in sugar, and things that sit on a shelf may have a lot of sodium. For meals, however, you'll want to take a quick notation of the amount of fat, protein, and carbs. If you're on a strict diet, this ratio is very important but if you're not, you just want some balance. A nice round number is 40% carbs and 30% protein and fat. You can then assume that your prepared "meals" would be better if they reflect a similar balance. Proteins and carbs have 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9. So you want the number of fat grams to be less than the other two. A quick method is to use a 1:2:3 ratio, with fat being 1, protein 2, and carbs 3. Let's visualize for a sec.

Pick up a pack of frozen low-fat chicken burritos, flip it over, and eye the Nutrition Facts label:
  • Fat: 2 g, Sat fat .5 g, Trans fat 0 g
  • Sugar: (Look under Carbohydrates and see nothing. This means there is no sugar.)
  • Sodium: 500 mg
  • Fat: 2 g, Carbohydrates: 20 g, Protein: 12 g
Now let's analyze. Since we're shopping for a meal that's low in fat, it's probably because we know that we get enough fat somewhere else in the day. Most of us have no problem getting fat in our diet, so this would be normal. A quick glance at the fat and sugar content leads to a big thumbs up. Notice I've skipped looking at calories. That's because it's calories per serving. We may not know what a serving is and, remember, we want to do as little math as possible. We can just assume we'll eat in servings, so that's what we're analyzing. You will want to check what a serving is later but, for now, we're tying to buy healthy foods and not determine how much of it to eat. Next is sodium, which we expect to be a bit high because it's a prepackaged food. As one of five meals in a day, 500 mg is 20% of the RDA (they do the math for you), which is fine. Finally, the burrito doesn't follow the 1:2:3 scale, but we were already expecting this to be off because it's "low fat." The protein-to-carbs ratio of 12 to 20 seems pretty close to 2 to 3, so check it off. How close is "close"? There is no rule, but if the numbers were, say, 10 and 60, we might look for something else, unless this was to be served with a pure protein dish. Total time investment, so far, about 10 seconds.

Read the Ingredients

5. Length of Ingredients list. Now just take a quick glance at where it says Ingredients. If it's under about 10 items I won't even look at it. If it's so long that I don't want to spend the time reading it, I put the item back because I know this will mean a long list of things I can't pronounce, and I don't want to eat things I can't say. If it's somewhere in the middle, I may take a closer look and exceed my 15 seconds but, in general, I keep this act simple. There are a few "evil offender" ingredients that people tend to look for, but we've covered them. By checking off the trans fat, sugar, and sodium above we're assured there won't be any MSG, high fructose corn syrup, or hydrogenated oils down here already.

By adding a mere 15 seconds per item, you may not have the perfect diet, but you can certainly make sure it's not terrible. This is not an exact science, but your diet doesn't have to be either. Eat better, and get more exercise. Beyond this we're nitpicking. Sure, we're talking CliffsNotes fitness only. Unfortunately, that's often all we have time for. Fortunately, it's more than half the battle.

And speaking of time, that's it for today. Next time, we'll talk about your sweet tooth and how to deal with it, and take a look at how artificial sweeteners affect your diet.


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