Which Food Labels Should I Really Read?
Let’s talk food labels.
Last week, one of my remote coaching clients sent me this picture, with a “What do you think?” query.
Pay special attention to the food labels: cholesterol-free, and no hydrogenated oils!
So, as my client was wondering, how do these cookies add up in terms of health? Does it make a difference to make a cholesterol-free choice, versus a regular cookie?
What about gluten-free? Organic? No added sugar? Vegan?
Labels can be confusing, and marketers often distort simple nutritional information with what’s called a “health halo.” I’m not going to dive into the world of health food marketing and health halos today, but to read more on the topic, check out this article!
Instead, in today’s blog post, I’m going to share with you the two labels that – if you only pay attention to a few – will make an outsized impact on your health and weight loss journey!
Let’s get started!
Number of Servings
Ironically, the first and most important thing I want you to pay attention to is not a nutritional stat – it’s something even simpler and easier. You don’t need to know anything about nutrition to make sense of this number, in fact.
I want you to always check the number of servings in a package.
This is crucial because some foods sound great per serving, but they have a very small serving size. So if the pretzels are 100 calories per serving but one serving is six small pretzels… the great likelihood is that you are going to eat more than six pretzels unless you take specific steps to prevent it.
One pound of pasta, for example, equals eight servings. If you have four people in your family and you eat the whole pound of pasta in one sitting between the four of you, you just doubled the serving size, whether the pasta is gluten-free, whole-wheat, organic, or whatever. So if the serving size provided 200 calories of pasta, you actually ate 400 calories of pasta.
If your goal is fat loss, eating 400 calories of pasta when you think you’re eating 200 is going to make your fat loss journey difficult and frustrating.
Serving size is incredibly important. A good strategy is to divide food into the appropriate number of serving sizes (as prescribed by the package) before you start serving and eyeballing portions.
It’s a tiny bit of effort that pays rich dividends – it is why clients are often baffled that I eat pasta, bread, pizza, and more. I can do this on a regular basis and still be lean because of the proper division of the serving sizes.
Grams of Sugar vs. Grams of Protein
In general, I’m not anti-sugar. I have a sweet tooth and enjoy the richness of real sugar when I want to have a treat.
But – and this is a big caveat – it’s important to distinguish whether you are knowingly eating a dessert, or you think you’re doing something nutritionally virtuous.
It’s often that gap in perception that results in slow or non-existent results.
Yogurt is a great example. There’s a huge difference between eating a nonfat plain Chobani yogurt as part of your fitness plan (one container being 14 grams of protein and only 4 grams of lactose sugar) and having a dessert yogurt, like the Chobani flip-top, which clocks in at 12 grams of protein but 20 grams of sugar (and double the calories, too).
When evaluating foods like snacks and yogurts, the protein-sugar ratio can be extremely helpful in deciding which products to make part of your regular routine and which products to make treats every once in awhile.
My general rule of thumb? To make it into my daily routine, a food has to have more than 10 grams of protein and less than 10 grams of sugar, and the higher the protein the better. The more protein a food contains, the more it will satisfy you, resulting in less cravings later.
Labels to Ignore
In general, if you simply pay attention to the number of serving sizes and the protein-sugar ratio in the context of a diet that’s rich in fruit and vegetables, you’re going to be fine.
When it comes to other labels (especially the ones that are prominently plastered on the front of the box or container), remember that this is marketing, and not always in your best interests.
Use your judgment. Is the label “organic” on a box of a sweet treat? If eating organic is very important to you and you were going to buy this sweet treat for your house anyway, that’s one thing. But don’t let labels like…
- “High-protein” (in quotes because it often isn’t)
… persuade you into buying something under the illusion that it is going to make a difference for your fat loss or health goals, because it probably isn’t. The benefits of something being organic or gluten-free are often outweighed by the amount of sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates in the product.
A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t have bought the regular version with a feeling of nutritional virtue, don’t buy the organic or gluten-free version, either.
And even though I think it’s overly reductionist, the cliche about “the best foods don’t need a nutrition label” often holds true.
Foods like apples, spinach, carrots, celery, blueberries, peppers, and more often are not labeled because the distributor does not have to worry about off-setting the perceived “sinfulness” of the food. Apples don’t have a perception problem. You don’t have to plaster a “gluten-free” or “cholesterol-free” label on a bag of onions.
When it comes to many labels, you can choose which ones are important to you, your health, and your value system. But when a label is “dressing up” a food that is low in protein, high in sugar, and high in calories relative to the container… you might just want to take a pass.
In the end, you’ll see results faster, as well as experience higher levels of energy and more satisfaction from the food you do eat and enjoy!
By the way, what about those cholesterol-free cookies? My client is VERY SMART and did not buy them. Good job!