Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All About Nutrition Labels

First off, here's the entertainment at the top of the program—the worst breakfast ever. Go read that and once you wipe away your tears of laughter, I'll tell you a little something about how to read nutrition labels.

I didn't grow up in a family that looked carefully at nutrition labels. My parents were from the South which means good food that's reeeeeally bad for you. To give you an idea of exactly how well/poorly I ate throughout my childhood, my dad used to make all my breakfasts, every morning, like this:

  • 1 glass of milk
  • 1 glass of orange juice
  • 2 eggs, over easy
  • 2-3 strips of bacon
  • 2 sausages
  • 8-9 Tater Tots + tomato ketchup
  • 2 English Muffins + butter (though it was probably margarine)
  • grits (on occasion) + butter

    —and the kicker—
  • banana slices... with mayonnaise!

When you eat that badly during your childhood, it's hard to correct course in adulthood. It's not impossible, but it does require fundamental re-wiring about how you see food. Unless you have an iron will, that unfortunately implies you surround yourself with people who have good eating habits, too.

I remember the first time I went shopping with my wife years before she became my wife. I remember quite clearly putting a box of Hamburger Helper in the cart and watching her as she took one look at its nutrition label and flat out said, "Yeah... we're not getting that," then put it back on the shelf. At first, I was flustered, then angry, but as she has educated me about calorie and food labels, I now see Hamburger Helper (which was an occasional meal in my childhood) as The Devil. Clearly, it's not the worst dinner ever, but it's a distant cousin. It's been a decade since I've had Hamburger Helper and today I couldn't even see myself buying it. Frankly, I cringe to think how much I might have weighed today if my wife hadn't vetoed all those bad food choices.

As a child, I have fond memories of drinking whole milk every day and, well into my 30s, I was still drinking whole milk. Then, in 2000, I switched to 2% milk, then 1% in 2003, fat free in 2005 and soy milk in 2007. I still love whole milk but it tastes like half and half to me now.

My wife has taught me to look at food labels and assess quickly if they're friend or foe. I haven't been good at my portion control, which is why I'm presently cutting back on food intake, but at least I haven't been maxing out on fast food and microwave dinners this whole time.

For the purposes of pedagogy, but also for the sake of completeness, let's assume that you've never read a nutrition label and know absolutely nothing at all about foods.

All foods are a blend of three basic categories—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

A calorie is a unit of energy for your body, which you can consume with food or expend through exercise. The recommended daily caloric intake is 2000, although that changes a little according to one's weight, age, how fast you want to lose weight, and other factors. Thankfully, the more calories you burn through exercise, the more calories you're allowed to consume for that day.

Certain categories of food are better than others, e.g., protein is better than carbohydrates, and both proteins and carbs are better than fats.

The proper proportions of proteins, fats and carbs are called "Recommended Daily Values", which appear as "%DV" on Nutrition Facts labels. (NB: These values assume a daily intake of 2000 calories). The "%DV" is explained in more detail here, but this is really all you need to know:

All foods are required by law to include a Nutrition Facts label with their food's blend of proteins, carbs, and fats. The Food and Drug Administration has a detailed and easy to understand guide to their Nutrition Facts label here, but this snippet is almost everything you need to know:

Great. Now here's what I look for and why, in order of priority:
  1. How many Calories (per Serving)? If total calories are over 300, each serving should be a large quantity of food, otherwise it's not worth it. Good range: 20-250 calories/serving. Bad range: (usually) anything over that.
  2. How many Calories from Fat? If total calories are 200 and 180 calories are from fat (e.g., salami), it goes back on the shelf. If total calories are 200 and 50 are from fat, that's a more acceptable ratio.
  3. How many Servings Per Container and how big is each serving? If the serving is only 1/4 cup and that serving is 200 calories, that's a miniscule serving... and if that package has 20 servings of 200 calories, that's a total of 4000 calories in the package, which is twice the recommended daily caloric intake! (Nuts are especially culpable in this department.)
  4. Does it have Trans Fat? Trans fat has been linked to heart disease and is actually banned in some European countries. If there is ANY trans fat, that food goes back on the shelf.
  5. What is the Total Fat? If the %DV (percent of daily value) is higher than 10%, that's a black mark.
  6. How much Cholesterol? Lower is better, preferably under 15%DV.
  7. How much Dietary Fiber? Higher %DV is always better.
  8. How much Protein? Higher %DV is always better.

Here are three examples of Nutrition Facts labels from my own pantry. Given my hectic lifestyle, I'm a fan of quick & easy foods whenever possible and I've discovered microwavable rice products are an ideal food for us.

Ranked in order of worst to best, Uncle Ben's 90 second Whole Grain Medley "Brown & Wild" (a Safeway purchase):

Trader Joe's 90 second Fully Cooked Fried Brown Rice with Mushrooms:

...and Trader Joe's 75 second Fully Cooked Black Beluga Lentils:

The lentils kick ass over the other two rices because they have fewer calories per serving (even though the serving size is slightly smaller), almost no fat, zero sodium, lots of fiber, and lots of protein.

Following the above guidelines, a few foods are immediately banned from our house, such as carbonated sodas, chips, snacks and all fatty meats. Initially, that was a harsh reality to accept, but it wasn't so bad to switch from Coke to Snapple, from Tortilla Chips to Soy Chips, from a pint of Ice Cream to an infrequent 6-Oreo package, and from Ground Beef to Extra Lean Ground Turkey. That's not to say I've never pigged out on occasion, only that food bingeing is thankfully few and far between.

Okay. Knowing what you know now, take a second look at Swanson's Hungry Man Breakfast... and try not to have a heart attack:


P.S. If you spot a glaring error, please let me know; my wife—el doctor—hasn't proofed it yet.

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