The other day we started exploring the art of reading food labels. It really is an art. The more you do it, the better you become and the easier it gets. I have written this blog to help you understand the most common 'bad guys' that the marketing world tends to talk about. With this information I hope you'll be able to happily pick up a product and understand exactly if it's going to be beneficial for your health or not. Let's begin.
Fats- no longer the bad guy
20 years ago, fats were regarded as the root of all evil. Fats were thought to make you fat. And this paved the way for a barrage of low fat, no fat, fat-free rubbish corrupting our shelves and our bodies. But what many people didn’t realise is that by taking out the fat (and therefore flavour), usually something else needed to be put in to make the item taste any good. And that item was usually sugar. In recent times, it has been artificial sweeteners, flavours and so on, causing further pollution of our foods. The truth to this has been 100% proved in the recent documentary "That Sugar Film" by Damon Gameau.
Thankfully we have continued to learn since that time. Fats are vital to our health, without them we would surely die as our body struggled to make hormones, cell membranes, and conduct the million jobs it does each day without our knowing.
But we still need to be aware. Trans fats are most definitely something to avoid. These fats have been molecularly altered, and our body cannot deal with them the way it does with a healthy fat. They cause oxidisation, inflammation, and free radical damage and have no place in a healthy diet. If your nutritional panel states trans fats, I suggest it’s best to avoid this product.
Saturated fats are longer chain fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter, animal fats and coconut oil. Although I believe these fats are healthy; butter being the only source of butyric acid- the fuel source of our digestive cells enterocytes, and coconut oil having a health benefits list as long as your arm; you still want to make sure you are aware of how much saturated fat you are consuming.
The same goes for unsaturated fats; both mono and polyunsaturated. While cold pressed avocado oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil and hempseed oil can be very beneficial as a regular part of the diet; they should make up a part- and a part only. Let’s not forget fish oil! The best source of EPA and DHA, powerful antiinflammatories and brain boosters.
It’s all about moderation. You don’t want the majority of your diet being made up of fats, and those fats being made up of saturated fats only or unsaturated fats only. Remember your quantities here.
Carbohydrates, the sugars in disguise
Some products will proudly display “NO ADDED SUGAR!!!” which is fantastic, but when you turn over to the food label, you see 80gm of carbohydrates per 100gm serve…. All carbohydrates are sugars. Just long chains of individual sugar molecules. And what our body does, is break up those chains, increase insulin release and store these glucose molecules as fat should there be too many to use at the present time.
Now again, carbohydrates are not the enemy. We need carbohydrates to live! But we also need to be aware of the marketing tricks that make us think a particular food is better for us than it actually is. It’s moderation again. You want carbohydrates for energy, but you don’t want the majority of your diet consisting of carbohydrates- especially refined carbohydrates.
Refined or simple carbohydrates are those that have usually been processed, and the fibre removed. Refined grains are softer, easier to eat and tend to make nicer breads, flours etc. Without that fibre, there is nothing to slow the rush of individual glucose molecules into the blood stream. You may get an initial energy burst from this type of food- for example white rice, but then be hungry a few hours later.
Complex carbohydrates are long chains of glucose molecules. Because they are chained together, they take longer for the body to break down and digest- slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream. This gives us longer lasting energy, as well as the benefits of fibre- the insoluble component of the carbohydrate that helps sweep toxic waste matter out of the body.
Most food labels wont have a break down of simple and complex carbohydrates, they may have a note of the fibre component- so that is something to take into consideration.
Protein, what sort and how much
On the ingredient list, have a look at what sort of protein your bars, balls and snacks are made up of. Is it soy, rice, whey, hemp, pea or a combination? Is that the type of protein you want to be consuming?
And think about amounts. Lots of products will tote ‘high protein’ as a flag for health, but too much protein can actually put strain on your kidneys and encourage the body to be more inflammatory and acidic. The general guide is that you need about the size of your palms worth of protein per day. In gram weight it is about 0.6 gram per kg. If you are a meat eater and have just consumed 2 eggs for breakfast and a chicken salad at lunch, it is more than likely that you don’t need to reach for a high protein snack for afternoon tea. Here’s that moderation thing again!
So to sum up these two blogs- read your ingredients, look at the serving sizes, look for a good balance of healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and protein, and practice! The more you do this, the better you’ll get! Or if this all just seems too much trouble- grab a piece of fruit or fresh vegetable- no labels necessary!
For those who would like a personal guide to healthy shopping and reading food labels, please check out my Healthy Kitchen Makeovers. I'm here to help you.