Nutrition and Food Labels

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I love food. I love to cook. I even get a kick out of food in movies and TV shows, from the spaghetti recipe given in The Godfather to the characters in Downton Abbey dining on fine china, linens, silver and crystal with the ladies wearing white evening gloves. From the kitchen to the table, I love it all.

But in movies and on TV, one thing is missing. Not one person brings up diet or nutrition. No one in The Godfather declined a plate of spaghetti because they were counting carbohydrates. None of the white-gloved ladies refused a rich sauce because it was too high in trans fats.

Let’s face it: Fictional characters never fret over cholesterol or blood pressure. Not one of them ever reads a food label.

Have times really changed that much?

In a word, yes. In the United States, one-third of the population is defined as obese; another third is defined as overweight. The FDA requires that foods we purchase have nutrition labels, so consumers can choose foods that are best for them. Yet two-thirds of us are consuming far more calories than we need. Why? Two big culprits are portion size and sugar.

Portion sizes have been influenced by dining out, especially in fast food restaurants. In fact, in the last 20 years, food portions have doubled or tripled. Consumers have become accustomed to “supersized” meal portions.

Children in particular are at risk; our current generation of children may have a projected life expectancy that is shorter than that of their parents. Overweight kids often become obese adults, making them more likely to develop diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and cancer.

The consequence of years of unhealthy eating may be a visit to the doctor with a conversation that goes something like this: “So, today, your test results for (cholesterol/blood sugar/blood pressure) are not good. If this continues, you can count on ending up in the hospital, with a stroke, or a heart attack, or other problems. The good news is that you can change these results. There is medication I can prescribe for you to take every day that will help. But at the same time, you have to make some changes. You need to change your diet and start to exercise. Let’s talk about what changes you think you can reasonably make.”

Would you like to avoid having that conversation with your doctor? Consider making changes now, including learning to read nutrition labels. It may not matter to you today, but tomorrow, you or someone you love may need to make drastic changes in their diet. The best way to prepare for that is to be savvy about what you’re buying and eating. The FDA has proposed changes to nutrition labels to make key information more prominent and to incorporate new scientific understanding about nutrition. Let’s take a look at labels and the proposed changes. Think of this as Nutrition 101.

Serving Size: Any packaged product you buy may contain two or more servings. The proposed labels would have this information at the top, in large font. Remember to check even small items such as candy bars. If they contain two or more servings, you need to multiply the rest of the label accordingly.

Calories: This listing will be in bold font under the serving size if the proposed label changes are made.

Daily Values: Based on the serving size, the label would note how much of your daily food values you’ll consume (fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs, fiber, sugar and protein). Look for foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. The proposed labels also would note the amount of added sugars. This should make it easier to make better choices as well as plan the rest of the day’s eating, based on the amount that is consumed in each serving.

Nutrients: The new labels would note the actual amount of vitamins and minerals per serving.

Although it takes time to fully digest the information in nutrition labels, one quick way to navigate food choices is to stick with whole, unprocessed foods. Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet and avoid processed foods.

Here’s a comparison. Imagine two plates that have exactly the same number of calories. One plate has two slices of pizza; the other has salmon, brown rice and salad. The balance of protein and carbohydrates in the nutrient-dense plate with salmon will take longer to digest and will properly fuel your body. The processed foods in the pizza slices have fewer nutrients. The pizza will provide quick energy, causing a calorie spike, and when that spike drops you may end up even more hungry.

Of course, good health depends on more than reading food labels. Exercise, proper sleep and other healthy habits are as important as nutrition. But educating yourself about nutrition can help you better understand what a balanced diet looks like. HLM

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