So you've just finished watching that new food documentary or just put down that nutrition article, and you're wondering what's next. Choosing to eat healthier isn't actually all that difficult. The challenging part is that food nutrition labels don't exactly tell the whole story. Knowing whether something is "healthy" or not is becoming harder and harder to decipher as labels get more and more confusing.
We've been fed (literally and figuratively) with various food facts and lies all our lives. Especially growing up during a period defined as the golden age of marketing and advertising, which is constantly in flux, it's no surprise that we've been fully feeding into the mouthfuls the media has been throwing our way without so much as questioning what's in our spoons. Thanks, Don Draper.
Luckily, as we've started raising a few eyebrows and looking into things a bit more carefully, science has permeated the industry, shedding light on some of the most common nutrition myths so strongly embedded in our heads. While of course, we're still uncovering more information every day, and scientific and medical knowledge should also be seen as constantly in flux, here are seven nutrition label myths to look out for when cruising down that grocery aisle.
1. Always Opt For Fat-Free, Low Fat, Reduced Fat, Or Light
First off, let's define what these terms mean. WebMD breaks it down the following way:
- "Fat-free" foods must have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving.
- "Low-fat" foods must have three grams of fat or less per serving.
- "Reduced-fat" foods must have at least 25 percent less fat than regular versions of those foods.
- "Light" foods must have either one third fewer calories or 50 percent less fat.
But here's the thing. You should be thinking good fat, not fat free. Because as WebMD also pointed out, the trouble with fat-free is that food makers compensate for the lack of taste by dumping in a bucket of other not-so-great ingredients like sugar, thickeners, flour, salt, etc.
That, and there's a huge difference between good fat and bad fat. Your body needs fat. As research scientist and nutrition expert Dr. Phil Domenico told Bustle via email, "fat intake actually stimulates fat burning and promotes satiety for a longer period, which can help with weight loss."
According to Harvard Health Publications, it’s a major source of energy, helps you absorb vitamins and minerals, builds cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves, and it's essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. For long-term health, the fats you should be opting for are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The bad ones are those industrial made trans fats, while saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.
Thanks to years of marketing influence, it's become almost second nature to read a label that says "fat-free" and think "skinny," "losing weight," or "healthier" — when it's just the opposite. So next time, be sure to steer clear and spend the extra 30 seconds to check that label.
2. Stay Sugar-Free
As The National so succinctly put it, when your favorite guilt-free ice cream or cheesecake says “sugar-free" what it actually means is “full of chemicals your liver cannot process." These chemicals or natural compounds are meant to replace the sweetness of sugar without all of the calories.
Sounds a little too good to be true, wouldn't you say? That's because it's just not true. At all. As Elizabeth Seward wrote for HowStuffWorks Health, the label "sugar-free" masks calories present in the food or drink. On top of that, she pointed to some recent studies that have shown that artificial sweeteners can actually increase your appetite. Plus, there are sugar-free products with ingredients that can raise your blood sugar drastically.
So what's a sweet tooth to do? Eating natural sugars in moderation in the form of fruit or honey, or just steering clear of synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame, is your best bet, according to BBC Good Food.
3. Whole Wheat/Whole Grain Are The Healthiest
Whole wheat and whole grain foods are perfectly fine, but they're not necessarily the absolute healthiest option, contrary to what's advertised. Sprouted grains are actually a healthier choice because they're less allergenic and can release all the essential nutrients found in whole grains, according to Domenico. As also pointed out on Mind Body Green, sprouting grains and seeds before baking produces more nutrient-rich food, thus providing more protein, vitamins, and minerals. Next time you find yourself hesitantly, and maybe even guiltily eyeing the bread shelf at the grocery store, you can definitely set your sights on sprouted grain breads like Ezekiel bread and give it a try, guilt-free!
4. Always Count Your Calories
Ah, one of the most regurgitated fallacies that I still find myself falling prey to. Among the many reasons counting calories can be counterproductive is the importance of the caloric quality over its quantity, according to Lifehack, which cited a study that found not all calories are created equally. Every macronutrient, they explained, has a different effect on your metabolic rate — basically how full you feel after a meal, the likelihood of overeating, and the energy used processing the food. For example, a chocolate bar and a steak may contain the same amount of calories, as suggested by the Daily Mail, but you're obviously going to be benefiting a lot more nutritionally from the steak; and chances are, you'll be feeling full for a way longer time.
5. Cut The Carbs
Most people have heard about low or no-carb diets. You know: Have all the burgers you want, as long as you cut out your breads and buns. Yeah well, there are several problems that arise from completely cutting out carbs. According to Reader's Digest, by eliminating carbs, you're also decreasing your intake of foods and nutrients beneficial for you health and will be more likely to resort to the "bad fat" discussed earlier, because your body will be craving something.
6. Greek Yogurt Is The Healthiest
The Greeks may have mastered their philosophy, democracy, and Olympic games, but that doesn't mean they've developed a yogurt of the gods to end all yogurts. This is another one of those marketing ploys that has been so tempting to feed into. That's not to say that Greek yogurt is bad, either. It's just that putting the "Greek" label in front of it doesn't necessarily make it any healthier. It's not a magical factor that erases any and all added sweeteners and artificial flavors. As pointed out on Prevention magazine, not every strain of Greek yogurt is equally nutritious.
There are so many other yogurts that have been under the radar and are finally starting to make their way into the spotlight of the dairy aisle. From Bulgarian yogurt to Icelandic yogurt — yogurt companies are using the same healthy processes passed down from some of these yogurts' countries of origin. The things to look for in yogurt, according to The Huffington Post, are probiotics, calcium count, sugar check, fake fruit, and types of fat.
7. Foods Labeled "Natural" Are Always Healthier
As Domenico reminded Bustle of a reiterated point in the nutritional world, "natural means nothing." Natural foods are assumed to be healthy because they are minimally processed and do not contain hormones, antibiotics or artificial flavors. Yet, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), neither the FDA nor the USDA has rules or regulations for products labeled "natural." So of course, food manufacturers are going to slap on that wonderful sounding "natural" label on foods that may actually be heavily processed, and get away with it. So again — really read those labels!
People will tell you hundreds of ways you can eat healthier — from what foods to avoid to how much you should intake — and it’s important to keep in mind that certain nutritional lifestyles work for everyone differently. At the very least, you want to know what you’re eating and understand how that actually impacts your body. So the first step to staying on top of your health game? Just take that little extra time to invest in some label literature at the grocery store.
Images: Pexels (4)