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You read labels, right? You buy foods that are “organic,” “natural,” “fat-free,” and sound generally healthy. But is it time that you reconsider basing your food choices on whether or not a food is considered “healthy”? The answer is yes… and here is why.
According to Roxanne Sukol, a preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, “Healthy is a bankrupt word.” She doesn’t believe any food is “healthy.” She believes people are healthy when they eat nutritious food.
And this makes sense, especially if you look at what these words really mean.
- Healthy is defined as having or showing good health.
- Nutritious is defined as having substances (nutrients) that a person needs to be healthy and grow properly.
With those definitions in mind, which seems more applicable when talking about food? The obvious answer… nutritious.
So, when it comes to making food choices, the most important thing is to make sure that it is packed full of nutrients (aka, is nutritious).
One way to determine whether or not a food is packed full of the good stuff?
Reading the nutrition facts and ingredients on the label is a good place to start.
If you see ingredients like corn syrup, preservatives, and ingredients that you don’t even understand, that food might not be full of the nutrients your body needs. Your body needs foods that are packed with complex carbohydrates (often rich in fiber), lean protein, unsaturated fat, vitamins, and minerals. Some health experts believe in eating “foods without labels”—fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. that aren’t processed and packaged. Entire diet plans, such as the “paleo diet” and “New Evolution diet,” are based on these types of nutritious foods.
Need some help understanding the Nutrition Facts Panel?
Here is a quick guide published by the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics:
- Start with the serving size: If there are 3 or 4 servings in one package and you eat the whole package, you are getting 3 or 4 times the fat, sodium, calories, etc. that are shown in the serving size.
- Check out the total calories: How many calories are in a single serving? How many servings will you eat at one time?
- Let the percent daily values be your guide: Percent daily values are based on the average level of nutrients needed for a person eating 2,000 calories each day. For example, if the sodium percent daily value is 20%, that means that someone who is eating 2,000 calories per day will get about 20% of the needed sodium in one serving. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day, and you may need more or less than the percent daily value of some nutrients. Pay close attention to these values and remember that they are for an entire day.
- The high and low of daily values: Low means 5% or less; aim for low with saturated fats, sodium, and cholesterol. High means 20% or more; aim for high with things your body is hungry for, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Limit saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium: Many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, are a result of too much of these. Aim for low, less than 5%, with these.
- Get enough vitamins, minerals and fiber: Aim high on these important nutrients. Look for things like fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron to help you reduce the risk of health problems like osteoporosis.
- Additional nutrients: Protein is not required as a listing on the label. Make sure you’re eating foods packed with protein like lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, and seeds, in moderate amounts. Carbohydrates come in three different varieties: Sugars, starches, and fiber. Look for a balance of high fiber/low sugar and starch in the foods you eat. Sugars are simple carbohydrates that occur naturally in many foods. In 2018, nutrition facts labels will be required to list added sugars. In the meantime, watch out for ingredients like sucrose or corn syrup. Aim for less than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars.
- Check the ingredient list: If a food has more than one ingredient, the label must contain an ingredient list. Foods are listed in order of weight, so check out what the first few ingredients are. If you see sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or other ingredients that don’t contain the nutrition you need, be sure to eat in moderation.
Even if you are eating nutritious food, you need to make sure that you are getting a variety of nutrients. As Michael Ruhlman points out in “No food is healthy. Not even kale,” eating just one nutritious food doesn’t provide all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that you need. Diversity in the types of nutritious food you consume makes for a more well-rounded diet. Even then, it may be necessary to use some type of supplement to get the entire group of nutrients that you need to get and stay healthy.
If you’re technologically inclined, there are several apps out there that help you track whether you’re getting the right type and proportion of nutrients. Check out myfitnesspal, Cronometer, or some of the other nutrition-tracking apps to help you track whether you are getting the nutrients your body needs. And remember—when it comes to supporting your body, it’s the nutritious foods you want, not the so-called “healthy” foods!