3 Easy Strategies to Confidently Read Food Labels
What we nourish our bodies with regularly, plays a vital role in our overall health. Nutrients are necessary to keep our body functioning well, and we know that in an ideal world we would be eating fresh, whole foods daily for most of our meals. However, that really isn’t reality, and we get it! Although, I mentioned “regularly” with importance because what you choose to fuel your body with often, can truly either help your health, or have potential to really hinder it!
Avoiding packaged and prepared foods isn’t feasible 100% of the time, so I hope to share some knowledge that will leave you feeling more confident and empowered to make the healthiest choices for yourself, even when they come in boxes and wrappers.
Whole Foods vs Processed Foods
Generally, the further a food is from its natural form, the less nutrients it will have. Whole foods are also incredibly special in that, their FULL benefits that come from all the nutrients packed into a single food item (like an orange, or a head of cabbage) working together, getting digested together, absorbed, metabolized, etc. are still being researched. There really is something to be said about the value of the whole, versus just the parts. Not that the parts themselves are “bad.”
However, when it comes to processed and packaged food stuffs, the way foods are broken down into the smallest components imaginable and combined with other things to form 1 single product, the least nutrient dense it will become. Which is why many foods, like breakfast cereals, have become “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. So, if you can reduce the amount of nutrients that are removed, and avoid having to add them back in with fortification, wouldn’t you like to try? So would we!
To start things off, I feel it’s important to explain some of the reasons why packaged commercialized “foods” are SO easy to reach for regularly, and why you might even crave them. That way, you can start to feel empowered in not falling for certain marketing tactics!
Why processed foods suck you in!
First and foremost – marketing. Plain and simple, companies design their products to reel you in. If it says, “whole grains” “With MORE Vitamin D!” “Gluten Free” “Organic” “made with real Olive Oil” we naturally think – healthy, or healthier. But are they really? Maybe, sometimes they can be. But it’s not a given that they are. They also choose colors, graphics, and catch phrases specifically to draw your attention in, and make you want to treat yourself. When you see a yummy organic cookie “made with flax seeds” and maybe it says, “Treat Yourself!” on it, don’t you want to do just that? Especially if we also see that it’s “healthy!” So even the healthier options could quickly become a hindrance to your health if you start to eat those regularly. A cookie is still a cookie!
Another factor to be mindful of is that companies KNOW that the more flavors there are, the more desirable it is. Think about it – Cheddar chips, or Jalapeno Cheddar chips? Artichoke dip, or spinach artichoke dip? A successful product is an irresistible product – high sugar or high fat, intense flavor, and convenient.
If you know their ploy, it’s way easier to avoid falling for it. While keeping these things in mind, here are some actionable strategies for you to use for picking the healthiest option you can (most of the time).
Strategy #1 – The least number of ingredients, the more ideal of a choice
If you’re at the store and comparing labels, start eliminating your options by the length of its ingredient list! ESPECIALLY if there are a bunch of words you can’t pronounce, or don’t know what they are. We don’t want to be eating a science experiment, we want to be eating FOOD.
Strategy #2 – Look for “Added Sugars” and “Hydrogenated Oil”
When looking at sugars on the nutrition label, key into the “added sugars” because you know those will be less naturally present in the food. Refined sugars are everywhere, and there are so many different names for them, it can be hard to really know what the sugars are. So, the best rule of thumb is being able to read and understand what the sugar IS (ex: agave syrup vs acesulfame k) and go for the one with the least amount of added sugars.
Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. While hydrogenated oils are not trans fats, they too are equally risky when it comes to heart health. So, when you look at the ingredient list, and compare different options, you might see, for example, Jif Peanut Butter is made with hydrogenated vegetable oils while Jif Natural Peanut Butter uses palm oil. If your budget allows, going the extra step and simply getting a brand with only peanuts on the ingredient list, that is much more health conscious for leaning more towards a whole food option!
Strategy #3 – Don’t get obsessed with the Label
As important as knowing what to look for on a food label to choose the option that fits your health needs/wants AND your taste buds, we also don’t want you to develop a negative relationship with food. Give yourself a break if you have the Doritos, or the Chips Ahoy cookies, but be mindful of those foods you nourish yourself with regularly. The foods you have most often will have the biggest impact on your long-term health!
At STRONGLIFE Functional Medicine in Lithia, FL, Dr. Justin Scott can help you address any underlying issues, whether you realize they’re there or not, and improve your overall health.
“I hope that you found this as valuable as my patients have over the years. If you’re interested in a patient-centered process that takes into account all aspects that affect your health, then I would encourage to visit our website at www.stronglifefunctionalmedicine.com to see how we help our patients improve their health and to find if you are a good candidate for a Functional Medicine approach.”