I recently did a nutrition talk for a small group of runners at a local Running Room, and was reminded of how overwhelming grocery shopping can be to those trying to improve their eating habits. While I was brainstorming ideas for topics to cover, their trainer messaged to say that what they were most interested in was learning more about the basics: portion sizes, food labels, and sneaky trickster foods that masquerade as healthy – but generally aren’t. Brilliant. The perfect starting point for any dietary change is understanding how to assess and evaluate your options.
Food is the fuel that keeps your body running (pun intended), but knowing what foods to choose can be complicated. Marketing agencies spend a lot of time and money trying to convince you that their product is the best choice, but healthy eating for vibrant wellness is more than just tasty treats. The foods you choose should provide lasting energy, protein to rebuild muscle, fats to satiate and protect, fibre to maintain a healthy GI tract, and vitamins and minerals to maintain and optimize health. In our modern time of packaged and processed foods, this can be a tricky request to accomplish without adding excessive salt, sugar, and food additives.
Nutrition labels are one of your first tools for assessing a food. I’ve broken down each component of a common food label to help demonstrate how to evaluate a food based on it’s label.
As you may have discovered, this popular flavoured yogurt could be used as a treat or as part of a pre/post workout meal where the added sugar may be beneficial – but as a breakfast food or “healthy” snack it leaves a lot to be desired. It can be helpful when making choices to try comparing a few versions of a similar food to get a better understanding of how they vary – in this case looking at plain yogurt vs the sweetened and flavoured variety would be helpful.
After reading the nutrition label, the next place to check is the ingredients list. Check for non-foods like emulsifiers, binders, thickeners, preservatives, and synthetic colour or taste enhancers – and eliminate/reduce foods that contain these ingredients as much as possible. If it isn’t an ingredient you would use at home – it’s likely there to benefit the manufacturer and not your individual health. While these ingredients are not always evil, they’re often used to make a product seem fresher or of higher quality than it actually is, simulating home cooking without the same nutrient content.
Ingredients in Canada must be listed in order from greatest to least, in terms of their percentage contributed to the food. Since the ingredients which come first are making up the majority of the food – by simply checking that the first five ingredients of any food are wholesome and nutrient dense, you can usually weed out many of the lower quality choices. The loophole used by many companies is to use several different varieties of less desirable ingredients (like sugar) so that these ingredients are listed further down the ingredients listing than they would be if only one type was used. If sugar, fructose, maltodextrin and dextrose are listed as the second, fifth, sixth, and seventh ingredients (I’m looking at you, favourite childhood cereal) then honestly the first ingredient should have been sugar.
There are many processed foods that use this trick (and others), and are marketed as healthy foods, but in reality are trickster foods. My top five foods that seem healthy but aren’t are:
1. Flavoured yogurt. Yep, if you hadn’t guessed from the hints above, I am not a fan of flavoured yogurt. The fruit flavouring is basically jam, and the thickeners and multiple sweeteners turn this healthy food into a dessert-like pudding. Instead, use plain yogurt (the only ingredients should be milk and bacterial cultures) and add your own fresh or frozen fruit, and a small amount of honey or maple syrup to sweeten to taste. This way you increase the fibre, antioxidants, and vitamins, while decreasing sugar and thickeners. Tip: you can use a blender or food processor to recreate the smooth texture of stirred flavoured yogurt at home. Do the whole container all at once to reduce prep time and cleanup!
2. Snack bars. There are a few decent ones on the market – but most granola bars and protein bars are full of processed ingredients, sugar, fillers, binders, and preservatives. Try making your own (recipes to come soon!) or simply stick to a handful of nuts/seeds with a few pieces of dried fruit. If you really need a granola or protein bar in your purse/glove compartment/gym bag, read the ingredients carefully and look for ones that contain mostly whole foods you would eat on their own.
3. Muffins. Most of these are simply cupcakes without icing, and often use unhealthy cheap oils and sweeteners. I’m not a big proponent of muffins – unless they are heavily vegetable based like my carrot or zucchini muffins, and are made with quality flour, sweeteners, and oils.
4. Salad Dressing. The ingredients in most store-bought salad dressings are probably negating a lot of the health factor of the vegetables you’re pouring them on – especially if you free pour like I do. Most salad dressings won’t pass my 5 ingredient test – nor will you be able to pronounce about half of the ingredients on the label. Preservatives, thickeners, emulsifiers, MSG, cheap oils, and artificial colours and flavours make up the bulk of most salad dressings available at the grocery store. I re-read my favourite ranch dressing label every six months or so to remind myself why I don’t buy it anymore – and the one time I broke down and did, it really didn’t taste like I remembered, now that my palate is used to a much cleaner flavour profile. Instead of drowning your salad in a chemical river, try using different combinations of acid and oil – and add in your favourite savoury flavours like mustard, garlic, or fresh/dried herbs.
5. Juice. 99% of the juices available in grocery stores are little more than flavoured sugar water with added synthetic vitamins. The process of making juices that can be stored on a shelf or in the fridge for months destroys every healthy component of the once nutritious fruits (or vegetables) that they are made from. You also lose the sugar-balancing fibre in the juicing and filtering process. Juices that have a longer shelf life than a few days are first cousins to soda pop – without the carbonation. If you crave juice, visit a juice bar or visit a health food shop that carries locally made, high quality fresh-pressed juices.
And there you have it. The basics of label reading, as simply as I can put it without paring away the good stuff. Feel free to post a comment or question, I’d love to hear from you.