The walk around the supermarket can be a confusing journey for many people. We are constantly bombarded with shiny objects and clever advertising to gain our attention, and there are new products coming out all the time that claim to be good for us, so how do we know what to believe?
Here’s a few buzz words and catch phrases that company’s like to throw into their packaging, and its often quite misleading:
– All natural
– Full of whole grains
– No added sugar
– Sugar free
– Fat free
– No trans fats (hydrogenated oils)
– Added vitamins
– Gluten free
– Made with real fruit
– Omega 3
Now a lot of the advice we give you here at the The Fit Stop is to stay away from foods that come in a plastic wrapper or a cardboard box, these foods will generally do you no favours when it comes to losing weight and getting healthy.
But there’s definitely exceptions to this rule, a lot of meat, poultry and fish products come packaged, as well as frozen berries for example, so this is not a flawless rule, especially for someone who is new to this whole healthy eating thing.
On top of that I understand that for many people, sticking to this rule ALL the time is just not realistic. You might have kids to shop for who just aren’t going to stick to eating like this (not unless you’re prepared to go crazy yourself), or a husband, wife or house mate who doesn’t have the same goals or just isn’t as interested in their health & fitness as you, and they have to eat too.
So given that you will undoubtedly have to venture into this murky territory and navigate your way through all the advertising mumbo jumbo, here’s how to read food labels and decide for YOURSELF as to whether something is healthy, (or not too unhealthy) and conducive to your weight loss goals.
The first thing to look at is the INGREDIENTS, regardless of the calorie content or macronutrient content, reading the ingredients will quickly tell you whether or not this food/product is worth considering.
Ideally the ingredients list will contain as few things as possible, and you will know and recognize what they are. If a food or product has a HUGE laundry list of ingredients then it’s a safe bet that its Unhealthy.
Here’s a pic I took at the supermarket of the ingredients on a pack of gluten free macaroni, waaay too much going on there, if the label contains more than about 3-4 ingredients then it’s a good idea to stay away.
In general the ingredients will be listed / ordered in proportion to how much of it is in the product, for example if you look at bread, the first ingredient will be wheat flour, as there’s more of that than any other ingredient.
The big red flags you want to look for when looking at the ingredients list are:
– Vegetablie oils,
– hydrogenated oils or fats
– trans fats
– Any words you struggle to pronounce
If any of these words are on the list then that’s not a good sign, but keep in mind the proportions, for example if sugar is near the start of the list then there is more of it than if its at the end of the list.
So after you’ve looked at the ingredients list, generally the next thing you’ll want to do is look at the macronutrient breakdown, being the protein, fat, and carb content.
If fat loss and improved body composition is the goal, then good quality protein and healthy fats are the most important ones to prioritize in your meals, the carbohydrates are a little more expendable and most people would do well to cut down on these.
What to aim for when looking at food labels really depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the item in question.
If you’re looking at a product just as an afternoon snack then the macronutrient breakdown or ratios aren’t really as important as the calorie content, hopefully you are getting adequate protein and fats in your main meals.
If you’re looking at a food label as an option for a main meal, then you’ll ideally go with a higher protein product like meat, fish, poultry, eggs etc. All the little ‘snack’ type foods you see in the centre aisles of the supermarkets wont be sufficient sources of good proteins, fats and other important nutrients we want in a proper meal.
CALORIE / KILOJOULE CONTENT
Then we have the calories or kilojoule content, which is BY FAR the first thing that most people look straight at, and the ‘usefulness’ of knowing this information is debateable.
If you have a target calorie limit that you are trying to stay within, then this may help (assuming the labels are accurate and assuming your calorie target is accurate), but if not then it’s almost a moot point.
In really broad terms, an ‘average’ persons fat loss calorie target could be anywhere from 1200 – 2400 calories per day. If you have 3 meals per day then that’s about 400-800 calories per meal, 5 meals per day would be anywhere from 250-500 calories per meal.
This is just to give you an idea…if you’re having an afternoon snack and it contains 400 calories, then there’s a good chance its going to blow the calorie budget after you’ve factored in breakfast, lunch, dinner, a couple of latte’s and other snacks.
SNEAKY THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR…
Reading food labels can often make things MORE confusing than not reading them at all, they’re not very user friendly.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Sugar is often replaced by other sweeteners, which might fly under your radar, such as:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Rice syrup
You could consider many of these ingredients to be on par with sugar when it come to the health & fat loss, so just because it doesn’t say the word SUGAR, doesn’t mean they’re not sneaking this other stuff in.
These are derived from sugar molecules, but contain less calories and will metabolize more slowly, but they can cause digestive issues like gas and bloating in many people.
Artificial sweeteners are generally made in a lab and not derived from natural sources, they are common in products claiming to be ‘sugar free, these are the ones you’ll typically see:
- Acelsulphame -k
And here is a great little table I stole online showing you the most common foods you’ll find each one in.
There are numerous studies indicating that these artificial sweeteners are not healthy for you, and have been linked to cancer, and other diseases in animal testing.
One of the biggest selling points in using these ‘zero calorie’ sweeteners is the potential for weight loss as it replaces sugar, however studies have shown that people using these sweeteners will actually gain MORE weight.
One theory is that these sweeteners will actually increase your appetite so you eat more, and when ingested they almost ‘trick’ your body into thinking its just regular sugar, so your body will treat it as such, giving you the same blood sugar and insulin response we want to avoid when losing body fat (or avoiding putting on body fat).
These sweeteners below are generally considered a ‘healthier’ option
- Raw honey
- Agave syrup
- Blackstrap molasses
- Lo Han Guo
The jury is still out on a lot of this stuff though, so it’s a good idea not to overdo ANY of these sweeteners. A moderate amount here and there is probably fine though.
Misleading Phrases & Terms
Think of phrases like “no artificial ingredients”; “light-tasting”; “a nutritious source of fiber”; “made with real fruit”; “part of a healthy breakfast”; etc.
Or brand names like “Healthy Choice”; “Lean Cuisine” or “Nutri Grain’
These terms don’t actually mean anything, but they can be misleading to some people, and conjure up a ‘healthy’ image that you associate with the product.
Another example is labeling items as “cholesterol-free” or labeling sugary sweets as “fat-free”. This may be true but these things never had cholesterol or fat in the first place, it doesn’t make them any healthier for you.
It can be very easy to misinterpret calorie numbers, or not take serving sizes and ‘servings per pack’ into account.
A products might say “150 calories per serving” and you’ll think that’s great! That’s a perfect snack! but not notice that a serving size is a tiny handful.
For instance, a serving of potato chips is about 160 calories… and about 18 chips. That’s nearly 10 calories per chip. When was the last time you ate only 18 potato chips? Go count them out and see what that looks like.
Here’s a pic I took of a small ‘snack sized’ tub of yoghurt at the supermarket:
So someone might eat this thinking that they’re consuming what’s written on the label. Little do they know they are eating 2 servings of yoghurt with that tub, so they actually have to double ALL of those numbers.
I’m not 100% sure, but I bet there’s not too many people sharing a tub of yoghurt like this, or there’s not many people eating half the tub and saving the rest for another day.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
There’s alot to think about when it comes to buying your food, it can be very confusing. In putting it all together, here’s a few action steps for you to think about when you go shopping from now on:
1. Think about what you are eating. Take the time to understand what you put into your body, read food labels and learn to scrutinize. If you’re unsure about a particular ingredient then a quick Google search on your phone will usually let you know what it is. It’s a learning process but one that will pay off over your whole life.
2. Keep it real. As mentioned, most of your food should come from wholefoods and fresh produce, often these don’t have any labels, or they just contain a little sticker. If the majority of your meals revolve around good quality meat, poultry, fish, veggies, & fruit, there won’t be as much chance you’ll get stung by a misleading food label
3. Ingredients > calories. Look at the ingredients first, if it doesn’t make the cut, then the calories don’t matter one bit. Look to move past the calorie mindset.
4. Compare – Try to choose a product or brand with MORE of the stuff you DO want to eat (protein, natural fiber etc) and LESS of the stuff you DON”T want to eat (sugar, trans fats, etc)
5. Reverse Engineer – If you have a type of food or a particular product you LOVE eating, find the ingredients and learn how to make or prepare the food with good quality, natural ingredients yourself at home without all the extra additives.
6. Don’t Believe The Packaging – Often the products that really try to convince you that they are healthy, are the unhealthiest. Take slogans, phrases, and health claims with a grain of salt and decide for yourself when checking out the food label
7. Set Your Deal Breakers – It’s a good idea to have a list of things that are instant deal breakers for you. If the ingredient is on the label then you are not going to buy it (or eat it!), plain and simple
Here’s a few ideas:
– Added Sugars (and substitutes)
– Artificial Sweeteners
– Hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
– Artificial colours
– Canned items not labeled ‘BPA free’
– High Sodium
– Non organic
– Non free range
Decide what your own quality control guidelines are based on your health and body composition goals, and stick with it.
8. Stick To The Perimeter – Did you ever notice that most of the good, healthy food lies around the perimeter of the supermarket, and most of the junk food is kept in the middle aisles? There’s obviously some exceptions to this rule but it’s pretty accurate for the most part. If you’re spending most of the time in the outside aisles when grocery shopping then that’s a good sign.
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