Fitness Facts: What does healthy eating really mean?
By Liz Cook
Registered Dietitian, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
We hear the word healthy thrown around a lot these days. Healthy food, healthy diet, healthy body, healthy mind, healthy lifestyle – the list goes on.
But when it comes to healthy eating, what does healthy really mean? How do you know you are buying good-quality food that is good for your body? How do you see through marketing and misconceptions to know what you really should pick? Let’s break it down:
First things first. Buying whole, fresh, unprocessed foods is your best bet. Think fresh fruits and veggies, minimally processed meats, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. If it doesn’t need a nutrition label, it’s probably a good thing to buy!
However, plenty of healthy foods come in packages and will contain a Nutrition Facts label. This label has a ton of information on it and can be a little overwhelming.
Fortunately, the labels are getting a makeover, and you will start to see more and more of the new Nutrition Facts labels in the future. The updates make the labels easier to read and understand. If you’re interested in seeing a comparison of the two, click here!
When it comes to deciding what to eat, instead of trying to compare every line on the label, focus on a few important pieces.
Things to maximize:
- Protein: Consuming protein helps us feel full and stay full between meals. Aim for at least 15 grams of protein in meals and 5 grams of protein in snacks. While more may be better, there is no real benefit to consuming more than about 30 grams of protein in one sitting.
- Fiber: More fiber helps our digestive systems run smoothly and also contributes to helping us stay full between meals. Women should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber daily, while men should aim for 38 grams or more each day.
Things to minimize:
- Saturated fat: When it comes to saturated fats, the goal is to eat less. Ideally, no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from these fats. To put that into perspective, if you eat about 2,000 calories each day, you should consume a maximum of 22 grams of saturated fat each day.
- Trans fat: Similar to saturated fats, the goal is to minimize your intake of trans fats. Try to keep your intake as close to zero as possible.
- Sodium: Most Americans consume more sodium than the recommended maximum of 2,300 milligrams daily. If you have high blood pressure, your daily goal should be less than 1,500 milligrams.
- Added sugar: This line was recently added to the Nutrition Facts label and is helpful to discern whether the sugar in the food you are eating is natural or added. For women, aim for less than 25 grams of added sugar daily. For men, aim for less than 36 grams of added sugar daily.
Focusing on the Nutrition Facts panel can give you valuable insight into what you are eating, but make sure to check out the ingredients list as well! When it comes to reading an ingredients list, be sure to consider three important factors.
First, shorter lists are more favorable and are usually found on foods that are closer to their naturally occurring form.
Next, the order of ingredients matters. Ingredients are listed in order from most to least, so if sugar is the first ingredient on the list, you’re eating mostly sugar! Look for recognizable, whole foods at the top of the list.
Finally, evaluate the complexity of the ingredients. If the words in the ingredients list look more like the names of chemicals than the names of foods, it’s likely something to avoid.
Evaluating the back panel gives you tons of information, but don’t ignore any claims made on the front of the package. In trying to sell products, food companies use different words and phrases that can be misleading at times.
For example, a food labeled as “calorie free” can contain up to 5 calories per serving. If the serving size is small, you may use multiple servings without realizing it and end up adding calories you may not even realize were there!
The same goes for “fat free” and “sugar free,” which really mean less than a half-gram per serving. Here are a few other front-of-label claims to look out for:
- No added sugar: While no sugar has been added to these foods and drinks, they are not necessarily low in sugar. Look out for this claim on bottled juices and dried fruits, which can have more than your entire day’s worth of sugar in just one serving!
- Made with whole grains: Unless the label says 100% whole grain, there is a possibility that the product is made with a combination of whole and refined grains. Look for a little gold stamp that states 100% whole grain to ensure you’re getting fiber-filled whole grains!
- Reduced sodium: When you see the word “reduced” on packaging, it means that the product you are looking at has 25% less than the original. For example, a can of soup that contains 800 milligrams of sodium may have a “reduced sodium” version that only contains 600 milligrams. The reduced sodium option does have less sodium but is still not a low sodium food.
Another question that comes up frequently: Is organic produce better than conventional? The answer depends on a few factors.
First, if you have an unlimited budget to buy all organic, go for it! There aren’t really any downsides to consuming fewer pesticides.
However, if that is not realistic for you, there is a tool to help make the decision a little easier. The Environmental Working Group comes up with a list of the “Dirty Dozen” each year. This list contains the produce items that have been found to have the highest amount of pesticide residue on them and should be bought organic when possible.
The group also has a list of the “Clean Fifteen,” or the foods with the least pesticide residue, that you can feel more comfortable buying conventionally. It’s also worth noting that organic foods have roughly the same number of calories, carbs, protein, fat, etc., as their conventional counterparts.
One final thing to discuss is the concept of “health halos.” This is the notion that a food is healthier because of a claim made on the label, a diet it fits into, or the store it was purchased from.
A few examples of this rationale are that “all natural” foods are better, vegan foods are healthier or anything from Whole Foods is inherently healthy. These are common traps that are easy to slip into, but with the knowledge you have gained from this article you can be a smarter consumer and really pick the best option!