Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet is essential for maintaining good health and achieving fitness goals. However, when it comes to choosing healthy food options, the ability to evaluate the ingredient list is equally important as analyzing the nutritional facts label. This is because food companies often label a food as “healthy” based on one or two components of the label, such as “high-protein” or “low-fat,” while the ingredients list might tell a different story. Furthermore, preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, and added flavors used in many packaged foods may contain dangerous substances that can harm your health in the long run.
The first step towards healthy eating is to learn how to read food labels. On all packaged foods, ingredients are listed in descending order of proportion of weight. This means that ingredients closest to the end of the list are present in the smallest quantities. As a general rule, the fewer ingredients on the food label, the better the food choice.
There are several ingredients that you should avoid while buying packaged foods. These ingredients are often harmful to health and can have long-term effects. Some of the ingredients to avoid include:
- Trans Fat: Look for the words “hydrogenated” and/or “fractionated”. Nearly all fast foods, baked goods, many packaged crackers, and margarines contain trans fats. Even on a label, if one serving size of food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, the manufacturer can claim it to be trans fat-free. However, this does not mean that the food is entirely free of trans fats.
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): These additives are often found in breakfast cereals, chips, gum, and even vegetable oil to maintain freshness. Some animal studies reveal that BHA and BHT may cause cancer.
- Food Coloring: Any brightly colored packaged food is likely to contain food coloring. Some ingredients to be aware of are: Brilliant Blue FCFC, often found in beverages, candy, cereal, etc.; Indigotine (beverages, candy); Erythrosine (cherries in fruit cocktail, candy); Brilliant Yellow FCF (sausages, candy, gelatin desserts). Be aware that the label may only read “color,” but one of the above is likely used. Studies indicate these artificial dyes can lead to cancer of the thyroid, adrenal glands, kidneys, and brain. These substances are also believed to worsen hyperactivity symptoms in sensitive children.
- Natural and Artificial Flavors: Both terms are unfavorable. While natural flavoring sounds “natural,” it is not. Title 21, Section 101, part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines natural flavorings and flavors as follows: The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, eating, or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit, or fruit juice, vegetable, or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Artificial flavors are synthetic, lab-made chemicals that mimic the taste of natural flavors. Both natural and artificial flavors may contain harmful chemicals, so it’s best to avoid them.
- Artificial Sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, etc.): Individuals who are attempting to lose weight may rely on artificial sweeteners to replace the calories found in sugar. Artificial sweeteners are prevalent in many packaged foods and drinks. There are a number of reasons to eliminate artificial sweeteners from the diet, including they may contribute to cancers, some individuals may experience blurry vision, GI distress, and migraine headaches. As well, a study conducted at Purdue University showed that rats whose diets contained artificial sweeteners appeared to experience a physiological connection between sweet tastes and calories, which drove them to overeat.
- Sodium Nitrate (becoming nitrite): This additive is found in processed meats such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs. It is used as a preservative and for colouring, giving some processed meats a reddish colour that would otherwise appear grey. This ingredient can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are cancer causing chemicals. Sodium nitrate has also been shown to increase the incidence of migraines.
- Sugar: Food manufacturers know that many people are trying to reduce their consumption of added sugar. To market their products, they often manipulate the reality of the sugar profile in their products. For examples, they may use multiple sources of sugar in one food product to give the appearance of less sugar overall (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, invert sugar, malt, maltodextrin, and maltose).
- Vegetable Oils: All processed oils used in pre-packaged, processed foods should be avoided. The polyunsaturated oils used in packaged foods are highly processed and may cause more cardiovascular and bodily harm than the saturated fats they replaced.
Portion control is second to food choice in importance when the goal is weight loss. Although detailed calorie counting is not necessary for most clients to see progress with weight loss, familiarizing themselves with reasonable portion sizes will be critical for success. The following table provides easy visual reminders of various portion sizes:
- 1 cup = 250 ml or fist or baseball
- 1/2 cup = 125 lm or cupped hand or half baseball
- 3 ounces = 85 grammes or palm of hand or deck of cards
- 1 tablespoon = 15 ml or thumb or half gold ball
- 1 teaspoon = 5 ml or tip of thumb or postage stamp
A simple solution to eating less and helping you on your weight loss journey is as simple a picking a smaller plate when you eat.