Healthy Foods: 7 Ways to Be a Healthier Shopper

Some great tips below from Kristen Kirkpatick.

When you read a nutrition label, what do you look for first? If you’re like many Americans, you answered “calories.”

Calories are important, but what if you turned around two labels without knowledge of the products and realized that per serving, each had only 100 calories. Both seem pretty harmless. But consider that 18 large strawberries and 11 small gummy bears each have about 100 calories. The strawberries are full of fiber, potassium, folate and vitamin C — nutrients that will enhance your health. The gummy bears are full of sugar, and other than a few gel stabilizers, nothing else. Although both are 100 calories, the quality of those calories isn’t even comparable. Understanding the 100-calorie example and adapting a few other rules may be all you need to be savvy grocery store shopper.

It’s More About Quality Than Quantity

If the ingredients are whole and understandable to the average individual (not a scientist) then you can assess the numbers and make your decision on whether to buy the product or not. The more ingredients the product has, the more likely it’s not a great option for you. I see this all time with energy/protein bars.

A popular brand that many of my clients purchase has about 53 ingredients in it, many of which I can’t even pronounce. The bar I choose to keep at my desk has three ingredients — dates, almonds and unsweetened cherries. It tastes great, has about the same calories as the other bar (and even a little more healthy fat).

If The Front-Of-Package Claim Doesn’t Make Sense, Don’t Buy It

Examples include “reduced-fat peanut butter” or “fat-free salad dressing.” Aside from a bit of fiber and protein, peanuts are all fat. The majority of the fat in a peanut is the healthy kind that has been shown to reduce the risk of both heart attack and type 2 diabetes.

So how do they manage to make a reduced fat version? Quite easy in fact. Fat has nine calories per gram whereas protein and carbohydrates have four calories per gram. Sugar, the ingredient of choice in many fat free and reduced fat products, has not only fewer calories but no fat. In the quest to produce a lower fat peanut product, the manufacturer wins and unfortunately, you lose.

Similar to the peanut butter example, most fat-free salad dressings are considerably lower in calories and fat due to replacement with sugar. I often tell my Lifestyle 180 participants during our grocery store tour, “You wouldn’t pour sugar packets on your salad … but you’re essentially doing just that with these fat-free dressings.”

I admit, the low-calorie option is attractive, but the simple sugars found in these products will cause a large spike and subsequent drop in blood sugar, leaving you hungry for more food soon after. While you’ll save calories short term with the fat-free option, you’re actually more likely to eat more calories throughout the course of the day and the chances of you actually gaining weight because of your choice goes up.

Ignore The Front Of The Package

This is where creative marketing occurs. For the facts, focus on the nutrition label where fact prevails.

Know Where To Look For Trans Fat (Hint: It’s Not In The Numbers)

Under the U.S. Labeling Laws, a product can claim to be “free” of a certain nutrient as long as it provides 0.5 grams or less per serving. Therefore, a product may have trans fat and still claim to be “trans fat free” in the marketing and nutritional label as long as it complies with these laws.

Unfortunately for the consumer, trans fat has been linked to increased risk of heart disease by increasing your bad LDL cholesterol and increasing your good HDL cholesterol.

Most health experts agree that trans fat provides no benefit to the consumer and should be avoided in any amount. You can avoid trans fat by looking at the ingredient label for “partially hydrogenated oils.” The key here is looking at the list of ingredients for that word, not trusting that it is truly trans fat free just because there is a zero on the label.

The Terms ‘Natural’ And ‘Organic’ Don’t Always Mean Healthy

Many of my clients put a food product in their cart simply because it has a “natural” or “organic” claim. These claims can be confusing to consumers and they imply that the food product is essentially better or healthier than other food options. This is not always the case.

A great example of this is the popular sandwich cream cookie. Many of my clients bought the cookie because of its organic claim on the front of the package, believing it was a healthier option. Upon further examination, however, they would have realized that the organic cookie option and the regular cookie option had virtually the same calories, fat, carbohydrates, sodium and sugar. The ingredient label still displayed ingredients that provided no nutritional bang for their buck and if they really wanted a cookie, they could have saved a few dollars and bought the original version.

The term certified organic is regulated by the USDA, and farmers who produce organic foods must follow USDA rules and regulations. The label with the term “natural” means the product is made without artificial ingredients — but that doesn’t mean that all natural ingredients are good for you.

Salt, sugar and plant-based saturated oils may be harmful to your health if taken in excess — yet they are all “natural” ingredients. While it is important to consider purchasing certain products organically, the rule does not apply to all products. If purchasing foods free of food dyes, hormones, artificial flavoring or additives is important to you, stick with organic versions.

For produce, the environmental working group has a great pocket guide that you can print and keep in your wallet when you go to the grocery store. This guide instructs the consumer on how to best choose organic foods and displays the top 12 produce options with the most pesticides. For more information regarding organic or natural food labeling, visit the USDA.

Be An Expert On How To Spot A Whole Grain Product

Many consumers are interested in purchasing bread, pasta, and rice that are 100 percent whole grain. Whole grain consumption has been linked to reductions in colon cancer, heart disease and stroke.

If a bread or pasta says it is “100 percent” whole wheat or whole grain, then you can be certain that only whole grains are used in the ingredients. If the label says “made with whole grains” or does not use the word “whole” in front of the grain such as “wheat bread,” be wary. White breads and pastas strip the grain of its most important nutrients. You’ll want to avoid refined grains in these products. Fiber is often time a great number to look at if you’re thoroughly confused. Breads and pastas that have one or less grams of fiber per serving are most likely not 100 percent whole grain.

But be careful here too, some manufacturers add fiber to the ingredients to boost fiber content in white breads or pastas. If you’re shopping for rice, stick to brown or wild rice.

Take Control Away From The Manufacturer
Whenever possible, create your own healthy combinations for the best health benefits. I often tell my clients to add ingredients such as fresh or frozen berries, walnuts or flax seed to low-fat plain yogurt instead of relying on the manufacturer to add these things in for you. Most likely, the fruit yogurt you buy in the store will be loaded with additives you simply don’t need.

Have you looked at the food labels in your pantry lately? If so, could you easily buy some of the ingredients you see at the grocery store? If the answer is no, you may not want to eat it.


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