Are you thinking about making changes in your life to become a healthier person but don't quite know how to get started? Perhaps your doctor has suggested eating healthier, exercising and losing weight, but it all seems so overwhelming. Many of us already know what we should be doing, but implementing all of those pieces of information can be quite a challenge. Too often we embark on a new diet or exercise plan only to give up after a few days or weeks because it seems too difficult. Well, worry no more. You have arrived at the ideal place to help you make those changes. We are going to develop new habits, one week at a time. Health, exercise, and nutritional goals have been broken down into small, manageable steps. Each week you will add one new habit and have seven full days to perfect it before moving on to the next one. This is not a traditional diet and exercise plan, but rather a journey towards a permanent healthy lifestyle. The steps may seem small at first, but collectively they add up to major improvements in one's overall well-being. In just 52 short weeks, you will be amazed and proud of the changes you have made. You will look back and see just how far you've come on your quest to be a healthier YOU. Now, scroll down in the archives to January 2011/Week 1 and let's get started.... Then, follow each week's tip to a healthier YOU!
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Week 5 - Become a Food Detective...
This week we will be playing the role of food detective, so brush off those magnifying lenses and get ready to examine the fine-print found on food packaging labels. Since 1994, the FDA has required that Nutrition Facts labels be placed on most food packaging. They are usually located on the side or back of the package and are very easy to recognize as they all share a standard format. They contain a wealth of information as long as one knows how to read and interpret the information. A recent study found that 61% of Americans regularly read food labels, 50% check the ingredients list, and 47% check the serving size. Not bad, but definitely room for improvement. What can we learn from these labels? And what are the key pieces of information that we need to pay attention to?
For starters, the very first thing we should notice is the serving size. All of the information supplied is per serving, so if there are two servings listed and you plan on eating the whole package you need to multiply all of the information by two. This is very important because too often people just check the calorie content and then proceed to consume all of the contents in the package. This can lead to a gross underestimate of the amount of calories and nutrients consumed. Pay particular attention to the amount of fat in the product, and especially the amount of saturated fats and/or trans fats. If the food contains any trans fats, it is truly better to just put the package back on the shelf and look for an alternative product.
What are trans fats and why should we avoid them? To understand why trans fats are so bad, we must first have a brief lesson on the different types of fats. Fats occur naturally in foods and can also be added by food manufacturers to improve flavor and texture. Natural fats can be either saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are the types found mostly in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs and some seafood. These fats contribute to higher cholesterol. Unsaturated fats (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are the "good fats" which occur naturally in plants and fish and contribute to an overall reduction in cholesterol. Although unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats, both of these types occur naturally in foods and your body knows exactly how to process them. Your body has a "formula" for dealing with both types and can utilize nutrients from both of these. Too many saturated fats are not good for you, but when eaten in moderation your body is able to handle them with relative ease.
Trans-fats are the BAD BOYS of the fat world! They are entirely man-made and your body has no mechanism for processing them. Trans fats are also known as "partially hydrogenated oils" which means that manufacturers have figured a way to add a hydrogen molecule to naturally occurring fats. This extra hydrogen molecule stabilizes the fat in products and greatly extends the shelf life by preventing the fat from going rancid. This is why most packaged crackers, cookies, snack cakes, puddings, and literally thousands of other food products can remain in your pantry for months (if not years) without spoiling! When you ingest trans fats with their extra hydrogen molecule, your body has no way to process this extra molecule. You are actually allowing a "damaged" molecule (the hydrogenated oil) to enter your bloodstream and permeate your cells. Because your body does not know how to process this extra molecule -- it literally has a different shapeand doesn't fit into any of the body's receptors -- this unnatural fat floats freely in your bloodstream and begins clogging your arteries. Trans fats deliver a double-blow by also lowering good cholesterol and raising bad cholesterol! Due to somewhat misleading labeling standards, if a product contains trans fats but has less than 0.5 grams per serving, it can be labeled "Trans-fat Free." Do NOT be misled by this false claim. If there is any trans fat on the nutrition label, it is best to just pass this item by.
Other important features on the nutrition label include information about Sugar, Cholesterol, Sodium, Dietary Fiber, Carbohydrates, and Protein content. Vitamin and mineral information is listed as well. We will discuss all of these nutrients in future healthy tips, but for now we want to move specifically to the ingredient list. The ingredient list is usually found right beneath the Nutrition Facts label. By law, manufacturers are required to list all ingredients contained in a product and thanks to newer labeling requirements, allergen information is now required as well. This is particularly helpful for those trying to avoid specific foods which trigger allergic reactions.
The ingredient list is where we really want to pay close attention to the fine print. In general, the more "processed" a food is, the more ingredients it will contain. In our quest to lead a healthier lifestyle we want to avoid eating processed foods as much as possible. Just as our bodies are unable to metabolize those tricky trans fats, they have an equally difficult time handling many of the chemical additives and preservatives found in processed foods. Our bodies are magnificently capable of utilizing most of the nutrients found in nature (plants, seeds and nuts, animal proteins) but are completely stymied when it comes to figuring out what to do with unnatural, man-made ingredients such as dyes, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and artificial sweeteners. Nutrients from foods fit into your body's cellular receptors like a "lock and key" and there are simply no receptors for these artificial ingredients. Your body's digestive system must work extra-hard just to digest them, try to absorb any nutrients (which are practically non-existant) and then eliminate them from the body. Your body becomes tired and sluggish when it is forced to operate day after day on this artificial food.
Consider the ingredients list on a popular brand of breakfast cereal:
Now, compare that to the ingredients list on a package of old-fashioned oatmeal:
100% NATURAL WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS
Any idea which one is easier for your body to digest? With more than 50 ingredients listed on the packaged cereal, many unrecognizable to the average consumer, this is considered a highly processed food. As you scan the list of ingredients you may begin to notice some very peculiar things. For example, the second line lists "strawberry-flavored apples" which include dried apples, artificial flavor, citric acid, red dye #40, and sodium sulfite. Here's something to think about: rather than eating man-made, artificial strawberries, why not eat real strawberries on top of a less processed cereal? You may also notice that the word "sugar" appears seven times in the ingredients list making sugar a major component of this cereal. This doesn't even include the additional sugar found in the honey, molasses, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup which are listed as ingredients seven more times!
Now let's look at the ingredient list for the oatmeal -- it contains only one ingredient! And while it is true that the oats have been processed in order to package them, they are very minimally processed -- in most cases they have only been rolled (less for old-fashioned oats, more for quick-cooking oats, and not at all for steel-cut oats) but no additional ingredients have been added. Please note that we are talking about the plain oats which come in cardboard canisters, not the little individual "flavored" packages which usually contain many artificial ingredients and preservatives.
When you read the fine print, you can begin to see how food manufacturers can significantly alter a food's natural state. That's not to say that all processed foods are bad or unhealthy; rather, it is the first step in beginning to weed out the less nutritious foods from our diets and add in more healthy, wholesome choices. You may have heard the advice to "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store. What does this mean and why should we shop the perimeter? Consider that the least processed foods are found along the edges of the store in the refrigerated sections -- fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy and eggs. Your first clue to their healthiness should be the necessity for refrigeration. Most of these foods will spoil in a matter of days because there are no harmful trans fats added. Of course there are exceptions in every food category, but with our new awareness of ingredients we will be reading labels carefully and choosing the least processed among them.
The "inside aisles" of the grocery store are where the majority of processed foods are found. Most of these items are boxed, bagged or canned and contain the highest amounts of trans fats, artificial ingredients, sugar and sodium. While there are plenty of healthy and convenient options in these aisles (canned tomatoes, dried beans, brown rice, spices) there are loads more unhealthy options that are highly processed. Packaged cookies, crackers, snack cakes, dinner-in-a-box (the kind where you add your own hamburger), stuffing mixes, scalloped potato mixes, and canned soups are some of the biggest offenders.
This week, start examining the products that are already in your pantry. Read over the ingredients lists carefully and notice which products are the biggest offenders -- which ones have the most additives, preservatives, dyes and trans fats. When you make out your grocery list, put an asterisk next to the items which need to be replaced with a healthier version. Allow extra time for your grocery trip so you can read labels and find suitable alternatives. It is not necessary to throw out everything in your pantry that is on the no-no list (although that's really not such a bad idea!) but as you use up the offenders, make a commitment to replace them with a healthier choice. At first, some of the healthier products may seem bland and less flavorful, but over time you will develop an appreciation for the way food is supposed to taste in its natural state vs. food that has been highly "hopped up" by clever food manufacturers. Don't be fooled by claims on the front of the box such as "Low fat", "All-natural", or "Healthy". These are very vague terms with no standards for labeling; instead, turn the box over and read the ingredients list. And don't forget your magnifying glass...
We will be revisiting nutritional information frequently in the coming weeks and learn new ways to prepare healthier versions of our favorite foods, but for now it is important to get used to reading labels and choosing the least processed foods we can find. Take this little challenge the next time you are shopping -- try to find products that contain 5 ingredients or less and buy those. They really do exist! More importantly, avoid food products that contain ingredients you've never heard of. Click here for a helpful list and explanation of 9 ingredients to avoid in packaged foods. And remember, we're not striving for perfection, but improvement.