Learn to read food labels for healthful options – Poughkeepsie Journal

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More shoppers are buying food labeled as “natural” even though most of us don’t know what it means.

The Food and Drug Administration requires a nutrition facts label on all prepared foods.

Unfortunately, not everyone is familiar with the proper technique to read and analyze these labels. This can result in choosing a less healthy option.

With knowledge and understanding, one can use the label for several different scenarios, including following a healthful diet or managing a chronic condition such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension or diabetes.

NUTRITION INFORMATION: Nutrition labels decoded

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in America. Following a healthy diet and initiating lifestyle changes, including staying physically active, can reduce the risk of developing heart disease and prevent existing diseases from progressing.

Several factors are taken into consideration when determining if a product is acceptable on a heart-healthy diet.

During label analysis, one should focus on fat, cholesterol, sodium and fiber content in reference to heart health. Choose foods with less than 5 grams of total fat per serving, which is indicated on the top portion of the label. Fat content can be found next to the bold “Total Fat” heading.

A person following a 2,000-calorie diet, as well as a heart-healthy diet, should consume less than or equal to 50 to 75 grams of total fat per day. With this in mind, it is also important to know the type of fat contributing to the total quantity.

Fat is divided into four types, each of which may be found on the label indented in a non-bolded font underneath “Total Fat.” Heart-healthy fats are listed as either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Unhealthy fats are listed as trans-fats or saturated fats.

Some examples of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts.

Trans and or saturated fats are not limited to but include butter, whole fat dairy products and fatty meats.

It is beneficial to select foods with fewer than 3 grams of unhealthy fats per serving.

High total serum cholesterol levels can also influence heart health. As total cholesterol levels rise, a narrowing of the arteries occurs, which is also known as atherosclerosis. This interferes with blood flow to the heart.

Dietary cholesterol measure is indicated on the food label. It is recommended the average individual consume fewer than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day. Those on a heart-healthy diet should strive for fewer than 200 milligrams per day.

Excessive intake of salt or sodium can intensify the risk for development of stroke and/or cardiovascular disease. The reason for this association is excess sodium intake results in elevated blood pressure levels. This occurs because salt attracts fluid, which leads to retention in the blood vessels, causing them to swell. With a greater volume of blood within the vessels, the pressure associated becomes elevated due to vessels working harder to push fluid out.

Prolonged hypertension or high blood pressure may result in injury to the blood vessels, thus making them more susceptible to undesirable plaque accumulation. It is imperative to read the food label and assess the sodium or salt content. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, equivalent to a little more than half a teaspoon.

In general, avoid individual items with more than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving or consume them sparingly.

Salt is used to preserve foods and maintain shelf stability. Canned soups, condiments and processed/prepared foods are high in sodium, so be mindful when purchasing.

Taste buds can become desensitized over time in relation to salt content. As time progresses, some will require additional quantities to recognize the flavor. This is often referred to as the “salt-shaker reflex”; the more a person uses, the more he or she will need over time to achieve similar flavor.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Therefore, fresh produce should be emphasized on a heart-healthy diet. It is best to prepare the majority of your food within the home. That way, all ingredients can be controlled.

Fiber is a dietary component of food that is indigestible, moving through the gastrointestinal tract following consumption in its intact state. Fiber is thought to be beneficial in heart health as it interferes with the absorption of blood cholesterol by bile and dietary cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract, ultimately removing excess cholesterol from the body.

Dietary fiber content is listed on the food label under the total carbohydrate section. The total fiber per serving will be listed in grams. For cardiovascular health, 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day is recommended. A single, high-fiber item contains more than or equal to 4 grams of dietary fiber per serving. For example, a half cup of blackberries provides 4 grams of dietary fiber. A moderately high fiber item typically contains 1 to 3 grams of fiber per serving (i.e. approximately a 1/4-cup of peanuts) and a low-fiber item contains less than 1 gram of fiber per serving (i.e. a slice of white bread).

Fiber also can be healthful in the management of other chronic conditions such as diabetes. Fiber slows down the absorption of sugar and promotes a better post-meal blood glucose level when compared to the consumption of a low-fiber item.

There are two types of fiber we need to consider.

Soluble fiber attracts water and turns to gel during digestion. This slows digestion, thus gradually impacting blood glucose levels as opposed to a more rapid rise. Due to this slowed digestion, soluble fiber also helps to promote satiety. Soluble fiber can be found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, some fruits and vegetables, and psyllium, a common fiber supplement.

Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables and whole grains. It adds bulk to the stool and appears to help food pass more quickly through the stomach and intestines, promoting regularity.

Diabetes is a condition in which the body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates is impaired, resulting in abnormal blood glucose or blood sugar levels. As a result of this, diabetics often become confused with the need to focus on sugars versus total carbohydrates in the analysis of a food label.

However, when visualizing the label, “total carbohydrates” is a bold heading with dietary fiber, sugar and sugar alcohols indented underneath. Thus, when sugar is the focus, you only get a snapshot versus the whole picture, as it is already accounted for within the total carbohydrates among other factors.

Carbohydrates are present in varying amounts in many of the foods you eat, including fruits/fruit juices, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, dairy and sweets. Carbohydrates are converted during the digestive process into blood glucose or blood sugar to be utilized by the body for energy. According to the American Diabetes Association, both the amount and type of carbohydrates you consume affect your blood sugar levels, so it is important to choose healthy carbohydrate sources and control your portion sizes.

Carbohydrates that contain nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats are referred to as complex carbohydrates and tend to be healthier options. A simple carbohydrate source provides mostly sugar and calories with limited additional nutritional value.

It is recommended to choose whole grains rather than refined grains because whole grains contain the bran and germ of the grain where most of the nutrient content lies.

Refined grains such as white rice, pasta and bread have had this portion of the grain removed during processing.

Although focusing solely on sugar content provides an incomplete picture, it is important to know where the sugar is coming from. Natural sugars such as lactose and fructose can be found in dairy products and fruit, respectively. Natural sugar is a better choice than added sugar, which is present in other sweet carbohydrate foods such as cookies, pies, cakes, candy and soda.

A method to aid in management of blood glucose levels is called carbohydrate counting. This is a means of maintaining consistent portions and meal patterns to promote better post-meal blood glucose readings. Each serving is the equivalent of 15 grams of total carbohydrates. A registered dietitian can develop an individualized meal pattern to determine the appropriate amount of servings of carbohydrates to consume at each meal or snack.

The food label is an essential factor for comparing and contrasting items housed on grocery store shelves. Becoming familiar with items ingested can aid in the management of a healthy lifestyle as well as chronic conditions.

The amount of energy we have, the way our bodies function and our overall health and energy all depend on how we feed ourselves, what we put into our bodies and the amount of activity we are able to achieve each day.

Although genetics plays a role in whether or not we develop certain conditions, if a healthy diet and lifestyle are maintained, it is possible to prevent or delay diseases from occurring.

If you have additional questions regarding the use of a food label or would like to learn more, contact a local registered dietitian.

 

Chelsea Hertel is a registered dietitian, certified dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Health Quest. Aliza Stitsky is a dietetic intern with Health Quest.

 

Autumn Chicken and Root Vegetables

This recipe serves four and takes about 20 minutes to prepare and 25 minutes to cook. It was inspired by a similar one at wellplated.com

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast (four 1/2-pound chicken breasts)

2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups Brussels sprouts

2 cups butternut squash

1 apple

2 cups baby carrots

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/3 cup dried cranberries

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon rosemary

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Peel and cube butternut squash. Core and chop apple. Clean and halve Brussels sprouts.

In a large mixing bowl, combine olive oil, apple, pecans, cranberries, butternut squash, carrots, Brussels sprouts, garlic and seasonings. Mix until olive oil is dispersed and seasoning evenly coats fruit and vegetables.

Spray cooking sheet with non-stick spray. Transfer contents of mixing bowl onto cooking sheet, spread uniformly, then lay chicken on top.

Place in oven and allow to cook until chicken is cooked thoroughly (internal temperature should be 160 degrees). Stir periodically to allow fruits and vegetables to roast evenly.

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