I often hear (today, most recently) “I shouldn’t eat that – it has ___ calories!” Today’s comment was made in regards to a minimally processed granola bar that contained 150 calories. This particular bar had few ingredients, most of which were nutrient-rich whole grains. The bar had so much nutrition to offer – fiber, magnesium, zinc, etc. – but the benefits were overshadowed by focus on the caloric content.
Although when I first got my start as a newbie RDN, I was a pro at teaching patients to navigate the Nutrition Facts panel. In fact, I taught whole classes and class series on how to interpret those numbers. And, while I still find some relevance to at least noticing some of the nutrient values listed on the label, I find far more important information on the ingredients list. So, I intend to encourage you to shift your focus to the ingredients of your food rather than just the numbers on the label.
You see, a food could have your arbitrarily defined “perfect” amount of calories; yet, it might be total crap. Yep, crap. I see decisions made by others every day solely based on math. I see professional healthcare providers eating ridiculously nasty food (with little nutrition) in the name of calorie control (think TV dinners, “diet” drinks, etc.). However, beautiful things can happen when you actually start to look at what is in the food you’re eating.
Here are some of my favorite “rules” to live by with regard to ingredients navigation at the grocery store:
- If you see that the list appears so long that you know you won’t have time to read it, that is a good indication you should put it back on the shelf and find something else.
- If you see “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated,” choose something else. No matter what the numbers on the label state, this food contains a particularly harmful type of dietary fat called trans fat. Most foods containing hydrogenated oils aren’t that good for us anyway, if you really think about it.
- The list of ingredients should contain food. In other words, you shouldn’t have to go online to Google the words to determine what they are; nor should you require a chemistry degree to crack the code. Eat recognizable foods.
- Although we have all been taught that we will start on fire and die if we dare to eat a – gasp – processed food, the key is to determine the degree to which the food was altered [processed]. Foods in bags or boxes in the middle of the store aren’t inherently “bad.” Just read the ingredients. A box of crackers shouldn’t contain 7,000 ingredients; how about whole wheat, oil, and salt? Fair? Know what those things are? Good. Simple.
- Ingredients are listed by weight from most to least. Therefore, if your ingredients label lists “sugar” as one of the first ingredients…yikes. I’d suggest something else. Beware that there are other disguise words for sugar, such as “brown rice syrup” or “dextrose,” among many others. If you’re trying to reduce added sugar intake, keep an eye out for hidden sugars.
- Speaking of sugar, the Nutrition Facts panel lists “sugar” under “total carbohydrate.” Sometimes this information can be misleading in the wrong hands. For example, an 8 oz glass of plain cow’s milk contains about 12 grams of sugar. This is not added sugar; rather, it is natural sugar. They are not the same thing. The trick to knowing if it is added versus natural is to read the ingredients! The ingredients will include sugar, or some disguised form of sugar, if it is added. Sometimes the food will contain added and natural sugars. Things get really crazy then…
Here is the absolute bottom line summary:
- If your food is high in calories, and also high in nutrition (contains ample whole vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, vitamins, minerals, etc.), be mindful of the amount you are consuming and listen to hunger/fullness cues.
- If your food is high in calories, and low in nutrition (i.e. cookies, candy, etc.), consider an alternative that will provide you with a vitamin or mineral or two instead. Otherwise, be very, very careful with the amount you consume. Low-nutrition foods are not filling, and lead to a cascade of triggers for overeating.
- If your food is low in calories, and high in nutrition, GREAT! (think leafy greens, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, etc.) EAT ALL YOU WANT.
- If your food is low in calories, and low in nutrition (think diet soda, TV dinners, sugar-free candy), then it isn’t helpful. It really isn’t – it’s fake food. Gross. Stop it.
- Count nutrients, not calories. Odds are, if you’re focusing on eating whole vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc., you’re going to fill up your belly long before you eat too many calories (usually).
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
– Michael Pollen