Understanding how to read a nutrition label is key to understanding how to make an informed decision about what is a healthy product and what is not. This post will be expanding on my previous post, Decoding the Nutrition Label. Today, I’ll be breaking down what makes a product healthy or unhealthy.
A healthy choice should be one that has protective factors against chronic diseases like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Whereas a not-so-healthy choice will include a greater amount of saturated and trans fats along with added sugars, and salt.
What to Watch For:
Saturated and Trans Fats
The items that are included in this category are those that when consumed in excess have been linked to an increased risk of several chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Both saturated and trans fats are typically solid at room temperature which means that they will have a similar effect on your body and particularly in your arteries. Saturated and trans fats are both naturally occurring in animal products like butter, milk, cheese, and red meat.
In order to reduce your risk of heart disease, it is important to minimize your consumption of these types. The American Heart Association currently recommends that no more than 5-6% of your calories come from saturated fat. So let’s say that you need about 1,600 calories per day then only about 9 grams of saturated fat should be included in your diet. Now as for trans fats, it is a general consensus that zero grams of trans fat should be consumed as a part of a healthy diet.
A moderate amount of salt is an important part of a healthy diet. Salt helps to regulate the fluids in our body and also plays a critical role in muscle stimulation and nerve impulse (American Heart Association). However, the problem isn’t that we aren’t getting enough salt but rather WAY too much. If you’ve ever noticed your hands swelling up and looking like a balloon then you have experienced salt over-indulgence. When we eat more salt than is healthy for us, our bodies swell up as we retain excess liquid. Retaining excess liquid is dangerous because more blood is pumped through our body which can increase blood pressure as well.
Did you know: One teaspoon of salt is equal to the total recommended amount of sodium per day (2,300 mg)
By looking at the nutrition label you can help to prevent salt over-indulgence by checking the sodium content per serving. If it has more than 600mg of sodium in just one serving, it’s probably not a great choice.
Whether you realize it or not, sugar can sneak its way into just about any food. It is often used as a preservative in packaged goods like chips, cookies, and sodas. However, it can also be added to some unsuspecting items like dressings and fruit juices. Something to keep in mind is that sugar can be present in two forms- naturally occurring or added sugars. The naturally occurring sugars are those that are found in fruit but these are not the types of sugars we should be concerned about. Due to the fact that fruit also contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals, our body handles and processes naturally occurring sugar much differently than it does added sugars.
Added sugars are those that are not naturally occurring and are later added during processing. Some natural examples of commonly added sugars are honey, agave, brown sugar, and cane sugar. One very common mistake people make is assuming that because the source of sugar is natural that is a healthy choice. To clarify, just because a product is naturally derived, doesn’t mean that it is healthy. Added sugar is still added sugar regardless of the source. With that being said, the recommended amount of added sugar as a part of a healthy diet is different for men and women. For women, no more than 25 grams of added sugars (approximately 6 teaspoons) should be consumed per day. As for men, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of added sugar (9 teaspoons).
To moderate your sugar intake, try to choose a product that has 4-5 grams or less of added sugar per serving.
Did you know: 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon
What to Include More of:
Unsaturated Fats (Polyunsaturated & Monounsaturated)
I know so many people are scared of fat as it is the highest in calories per serving, but as I mentioned in my previous post, Facts on Fat not all sources of fat are the same. Unsaturated sources of fat are the ideal types of fats to include in your diet as they are naturally derived and have been proven to help lower the LDL (bad cholesterol) and help to raise the HDL (good cholesterol). In addition, new studies have emerged suggesting that Omega-3’s (those found in nuts, seeds, fish) can help to protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. When reading through a product’s nutrition label be sure that the fats present are either polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated.
Keep in mind that although this is the type of fat you want to include more of in comparison to saturated and trans fats, fat regardless of the source still contains 9 calories per gram. In order to avoid overindulging, keep the portion of fat to the size of your thumb or if using measurements, about 1 tablespoon per serving.
One of the most important aspects of a healthy diet is the presence of fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is indigestible by the body. Now, you may be thinking if it can’t be digested then what’s the point? The role of fiber is extensive and is key to maintaining a healthy weight. Fiber is processed by the body at a much slower rate than carbohydrates without fiber which not only keeps you full for longer, but it also helps to prevent any blood sugar spikes. Fiber also helps to keep your colon clean so if you are someone who suffers from constipation, try adding some extra fiber to your meals.
When it comes to fiber, usually the more the merrier. However, if you are transitioning from a diet that is previously lacking in fiber, start slow and add in a little at a time. It is recommended to consume 20-30 grams of fiber per day but as I mentioned, add a little bit at a time and build up to that amount. Fiber is usually found in the skin of fruits and vegetables but is also found in whole-grain carbohydrates. Any amount of fiber in your diet is great, but when browsing through the grocery store try to choose an item that has 5 grams or more fiber per serving.
It’s no secret that vitamins are good for you. They each play a different role in our body and are important for different things. Vitamins can be split into two categories, fat-soluble (dissolve in fat) and water-soluble (dissolve in water). Fat-soluble vitamins require the presence of fat in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream and include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Water-soluble vitamins are consistently being flushed out of the body and include B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. While there are some limits on the fat-soluble vitamins, they are not common if you obtain them from whole foods. However, if you are using supplements it is important to be aware of these limits as there are some serious side effects of too much vitamin A, D, E, and K. I will discuss more on supplements in another post but for now, try to get your vitamins from whole foods.
A percentage of 5 or less is considered low, whereas a percentage of 20 or more is considered high.
All in all, making a healthy choice isn’t very difficult if you know what you’re looking for. Some indicators of a healthy choice include
- Less than 5% daily value of saturated fat
- 0% daily value of trans fat
- Low in sugar (4g or less per serving)
- Low in salt (600mg or less per serving)
- Presence of unsaturated fats
- High in fiber (5g or more per serving)
- High percent daily value of vitamins (20% or greater per serving)
When making choices take your time reading the nutrition label. It will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision that is best for you and your health.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and if you found it helpful be sure to follow Life at the Mesa by leaving your email to be notified of my latest posts. If you have any further questions or comments leave them down below! Take care and best of luck. ♥