March is National Nutrition Month and it’s the perfect time to start making smart food choices by reading labels and ordering healthier meals when eating out.
While grocery shopping may take a little longer at first, a few moments of label reading can pay big health dividends for you and your family. Reading labels is actually pretty simple, but you also need to understand how to interpret them.
Most food labels provide lists of ingredients, health claims and nutrition fact panels. The very first thing to check on a nutrition fact panel is the particular food’s serving size.
Many Americans believe one bag or container of food is one serving, regardless of the package’s size. This may be one reason for the dramatic increase in obesity among American children and adults. Checking a food’s serving size and the number of servings will make consumers more aware of how much they’re actually eating.
Next, check the calories and the fat content per serving. And, if you’re watching your salt intake, look at the food’s sodium content. Also, note the nutrient benefits you’ll receive by eating that particular food.
Important nutrients to check include protein, carbohydrates and the different types of fats — monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Monounsaturated fatty acids are mostly found in vegetable oils, such as canola, olive and peanut oils. Eating foods high in monounsaturated fatty acids may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease heart-disease risks.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids also are found in vegetable oils, such as safflower, sunflower, corn, flaxseed and canola oils. Specific polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, are called essential fatty acids. These are necessary to maintain cell structure and make hormones, and they must be obtained from foods. Eating polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fats decreases LDL cholesterol levels.
As you know, not all fatty acids are good for our bodies. Saturated fatty acids are found in animal sources, such as meat and poultry, whole or reduced-fat milk and butter. Some vegetable oils, like coconut, palm kernel oil and palm oil, also are saturated.
Eating too many foods high in saturated fat may increase blood levels of LDL and total cholesterol. High blood levels of LDL and total cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease. Trans fatty acids act like saturated fats and raise LDL cholesterol levels. They may also lower HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood. Trans fatty acids are formed when vegetable oils are processed into margarine or shortening. Sources of trans fatty acids in the diet include snack foods and baked goods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening. Trans fatty acids also occur naturally in some animal products, like dairy.
To help Americans stay on track, dieticians and health-care providers have created guidelines for fat intake. These guidelines recommend that each person consume no more than 30 percent of their total calories from fat. The 30 percent guideline means:
• No more than 7-10 percent of total calories from saturated fats
• About 10-15 percent of total calories from monounsaturated fats
• About 10 percent from polyunsaturated fats
When checking seafood, meat or poultry, you can determine the amount of fat in each by the understanding labels:
• Lean: Less than 10 grams of total fat, four grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol per three-ounce serving
• Extra-lean: Less than five grams of total fat, two grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol per three-ounce serving
Listings for vitamins A and C, calcium and iron also can be found on nutrition fact panels. These vitamins and minerals tend to be lacking in the typical American diet, so they often are added to foods when possible.
Good sources of vitamins A and C include sweet potatoes, kale, broccoli, mango, guava, red peppers and papaya. For calcium, make sure to eat enough dairy, leafy green vegetables and fortified juices. Add select lean meats, poultry and beans for iron.
All food labels are now required to have specific terms with definable meanings. The terms are:
• Free: An amount so small that it probably won’t have any effect on your body — for example, calorie-free, fat-free or sodium-free.
• Low: A small amount of calories, fat or cholesterol.
• Reduced: A food with at least 25 percent fewer calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium than a comparable food. Look at what it’s being compared to.
• High: Twenty percent or more of the daily value for a nutrient — for example, high in vitamin C or high calcium. Other terms are “excellent source of” or “rich in.”
• Good source: Ten to 19 percent of the daily value for a nutrient — for example, “good source of fiber” or terms such as “contains” or “provides.”
• More: Ten percent or more of the daily value — for example, “more fiber” or “more iron” or terms such as “enriched” or “fortified.”
• Light: One-third fewer calories or 50 percent less fat than the traditional version. A low-calorie or low-fat food with 50 percent less sodium might also be called “light” or “lite.”
• Healthy: Low in fat and saturated fat, 60 milligrams or less cholesterol per serving, 480 milligrams or less sodium per serving, and at least 10 percent of the daily value per serving of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber. Raw, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are exceptions. They can be labeled healthy without having 10 percent of the DV or more of these nutrients per serving.
Take time and know exactly what you are eating — and start the process this month.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.