Food labels were supposedly created to help us with our food choices. But for many of us, the reality is that we really don’t know what we should be looking for. Some people may look at calories, others may look at fats – but there are other more important things to consider first.
The most important part of a food label is the serving size. On most labels, the serving size is at the top. The serving size influences the data for the rest of the food label. For example, on a package of Asian noodle soup the serving size is two, but most people eat an entire package by themselves, so as you read the label, you must double the indicated amounts. Many energy drinks are two, sometimes three servings in one can – who drinks only a portion of a can?
Pay particular attention to the nutrition facts on foods such as salad dressings, baked beans, cookies, cereal and highly processed foods. When you do, the food label will be helpful and can assist you in more accurately assessing the size single serving and the nutritional values of the serving.
Another important listing on a food label is the amount of protein. You may not think there is a huge difference in protein amounts among bagels, but there is. A plain white bagel may have as little as one gram of protein. Sprouted bagels, such as those found at Trader Joe’s, have 12 grams of protein, which is as much protein as found in two eggs. Remember to be moderate with protein in your diet, keeping in mind a goal of 20 grams per meal.
Most diets lack adequate fiber. The recommended daily intake of fiber is approximately 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Most processed foods have very little fiber, if any. Sprouted grains and beans of any kind are high in fiber, but the best form of fiber is found in fruits and vegetables. Dietary fiber is usually listed toward the bottom of the food label.
Excess sugar intake can be very dangerous for those new in recovery and for people suffering from anxiety and depression. Keeping an eye on sugar in prepared foods is an essential recovery strategy. Remember that four grams of sugar in a food equals one teaspoon of sugar. Just one 20 ounce soda product has 77 grams of sugar, which equals 19 teaspoons of sugar. Imagine sitting down and eating 19 teaspoons of sugar! In addition, the label on that same 20 ounce bottle of soda claims it contains two and a half servings per bottle. I have rarely seen two and a half people sharing a bottle of soda!
Keep your eyes off the calories – calories refer to the energy available in the food and don’t tell the whole story. It is more important to pay attention to the nutrients found in the food you eat. Focus on the serving size, protein, fiber and sugar in every serving.
Of course, as a nutritionist, I strongly encourage eating foods such as fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and beans – foods that don’t come with a Nutrition Facts label.