Ever go the grocery store and get completely overwhelmed by all of the food labels? Labels can claim all kinds of things about a food or food product—such as, it’s gluten-free, sugar-free, low fat or organic—yet a quick glance at the nutrition info reveals ingredients you’ve never even heard of before. How can smart consumers stay on top of the buzzwords for food purchases that are nutritious, healthy and delicious?
An optimal diet is naturally made up of whole, real foods. Organic produce, grass-fed meats, wild seafood and quality fats are the building blocks of a nutrient-dense diet. To paraphrase food writer Michael Pollen: Eat real food and ditch food products.
However, if your schedule pushes you to reach for a pre-packaged food product, health expert Stephanie Baker shares some tips in today’s guest post to help you navigate the labels.
Read beyond the nutrition facts into the ingredient listing.
A product can have a fairly attractive nutrition facts panel – low (or zero) sugar, high protein content, moderate calorie count – but can have harmful ingredients lurking within.
Five ingredients to look out for:
- Partially hydrogenated oils are the primary source of trans fats in many products; however, this is not necessarily transparent on the nutrition facts panel. Products that incorporate under a half a gram of trans fat per serving (.49g) can claim to be trans-fat free. If there are 8 servings in a package, you may be ingesting close to 4g of artery-clogging trans fats without even knowing it. Look for partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient fact panel. If you see it, put it down.
- Food Dyes, such as blue 1 & 2, red 3 & 40, and yellow 5 & 6, have been linked to countless health concerns. Blue 1 has been linked to the inhibition of nerve cell development, red 3 is known to cause tumors, and yellow 5 has been linked to hyperactivity in children.
- Artificial Sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame may hide sugar grams from the ingredient listing, but they do more harm than good for your overall health. Additionally, studies suggest that artificial sweeteners actually make people more likely to keep eating sweets. It is best to incorporate sweetness from whole food sources, such as fruits.
- Refined sugars, especially High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), have been linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders. HFCS, a highly processed form of glucose converted into fructose, is especially important to cut out of your diet completely.
- Artificial Preservatives, such as Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytolune (BHT), are used to extend shelf life. BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants generally used to keep fats from becoming rancid and are found on the ingredient listings of a wide range of common food products, including granola bars, chips, cereals and gum. These compounds have been investigated for impacting the neurological system of the brain, altering behavior, and as potential carcinogens.
Seek out whole food ingredients that provide your body with nutrients to fuel your lifestyle.
Every time you eat is an opportunity to nourish your body. Calories devoid of nutrients do not help you optimize your health; in fact, they do just the contrary. “Functional” ingredients support your body’s health. Here are five whole foods that are especially beneficial for digestive and heart health, energy, and cognition:
- Sweet Potatoes: Rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber, these tasty root vegetables offer many benefits for your health. Vitamin A is needed for optimal eye health, immune health and normal growth and development. Vitamin C aids in collagen formation and plays an integral role in the functioning of the immune system. Plus, both vitamins A and C are antioxidant nutrients that help protect cells and defend against free radicals. Potassium maintains normal fluid balance in the body, while fiber – with adequate fluids – supports healthy digestion and intestinal regularity.
- Quinoa: Rich in quality protein, fiber, folate, phosphorus and magnesium, quinoa offers major benefits for growth and development, digestive regularity, and bone metabolism.
- Chia seeds: A fantastic source of the minerals calcium, phosphorus and manganese as well as fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The powerful mineral trio found in chia seeds works hard to promote healthy bone development of both mom and baby, while the rich supply of fiber found in these seeds helps mom maintain good digestive regularity. What’s more, chia seeds give the gift of healthy fats – specifically the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. ALA and omega-3 intake in general has been strongly linked to good heart health.
- Olive Oil: Bursting with healthy monounsaturated fats, which have been linked to benefits in cardiovascular health, olive oil also contains natural plant-based polyphenol compounds that offer both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Adequate dietary fat from healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil and ghee–is crucial for your energy and nutritional needs.
- Almonds: Are jam-packed with nutrients. In an one-ounce serving of almonds (approximately 20-25 almonds), you can find a good amount of protein, fiber, and the minerals calcium and magnesium. Protein and fiber support healthy energy levels during pregnancy, and fiber is particularly beneficial for promoting digestive regularity. Calcium and magnesium are critical components of strong bones and teeth, and are also intricately involved in normal nerve, muscle and cardiac function. Additionally, almonds are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, supporting energy needs and healthy cognition.
Stephanie believes that good health is seeded in the most intimate phase of life – the beginning. Raised in a family of physicians, Stephanie developed a passion for health at an early age and has sought to direct her professional pursuits at the intersection of health and business. In her most recent role as a Senior Consultant within PwC’s Personalized Medicine practice, she developed new business models keyed towards driving the promise of personalized medicine into the clinic. Through CredibleCravings, Stephanie hopes to inspire healthy nutritional choices and lifestyle changes that improve the health of our next generation, keeping people outside of the clinic; the name of the game is prevention.