“Simply Read a Food Label” by Mark Erik Meijer, MD
First published in Aynor Journal, vol. 12, #46 (September 7, 2000) Aynor, South Carolina.
Republished as Chapter 17 in TEN STEPS to Control Diabetes [Tampa, Fla.]: MeMend Books, 2004. ISBN: 0-9761572-0-9
You can’t judge food by its cover. You have to read the label or look it up in a book (i.e. calorie counter). Food labels have become very complicated. They can be simplified (you’ll see).
The first thing you should check is “serving size.” Never assume the information on the label represents the entire contents of the package. Never assume that “serving sizes” are reasonable. The label will tell you how many servings there are in a package. If you are interested in comparing the label of one brand with another, make certain that your serving sizes are equal.
The next item of interest is calories. Everything (except water) has calories (it’s not “if” but “how many”). It doesn’t matter where the calories come from (whether it’s fat, carbohydrates or protein). A calorie is a calorie.
A calorie represents how much fuel there is in food or drink. You need energy to go. If you run out of “gas,” you die. Excessive fuel is stored as fat in the body. If you want to lose weight, you need to determine where the excessive fuel is coming from. This is done by counting calories (not fat grams).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you eat balanced meals. The recommended quantities of a variety of vitamins and minerals are dependent on how many calories a person eats. Many of these vitamins and minerals are listed on food labels. The quantities of these items are listed as a percentage of the total amount recommended. This is based on a specific calorie count mentioned somewhere on the label. (In no way does that imply what your calorie count should be.)
Even though the USDA gives precise numbers for all of these items, the truth is that we really don’t know what the precise numbers should be. USDA recommendations for vitamins and minerals are reasonable “educated guesses” of how much we need. Excessive amounts of some minerals and vitamins are harmful. Therefore, goals are helpful.
Precisely adding up vitamins and minerals is not helpful. There is no point in this kind of mathematical precision. If you eat a balanced meal, you will probably get all the vitamins and minerals you need. Food label percentages help you learn which foods have what and how much. The USDA’s “pyramid of food” is well publicized and gives a general picture of what a balanced diet should consist of.
Food labels do not merely list fat content. Fat is broken down into saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and mono-unsaturated fat. (Cholesterol is listed as a separate item.) The problem with all fat is that many people eat too much. Fat is high in calories and has no fiber. Eating excessive calories makes you fat.
I do not see much purpose in counting fat grams or monitoring the percentage of fat indicated by food labels. The “polys” and the “monos” interest me even less. If you are overweight, eat fewer calories. Any reduction in caloric intake tends to reduce fat consumption (since fat is high in calories). Simply count calories.
The total elimination of dietary fat is not healthy. Dietary fat is an essential ingredient to a balanced meal. (But only small amounts are needed.)
Most Americans need to increase the amount of fiber they eat. If this is done, and total caloric intake is unchanged, the amount of fat per meal will automatically fall. (Fat has no fiber.) Therefore, you can reduce, if needed, your fat intake by decreasing or maintaining calories while you increase dietary fiber.
Labels indicate cholesterol as a separate item. Some packages brag about their cholesterol content. None of this is important in regards to blood cholesterol. For most people, the importance of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol is greatly exaggerated. Cholesterol is high in calories, so calorie counting will (again) address this concern.
All labels list sodium. Sodium is “salt.” It is an unavoidable component of food and is essential to life. There is no such thing as a diet without salt. While most Americans eat too much salt, for most, it is a harmless mistake. For no logical reason, a lot of processed high salt food (e.g., pizza, potato chips, etc.) is also high in calories. This, not salt, is the problem for most people.
Excessive salt can be dangerous for patients with kidney or heart problems. Restricting salt intake is done by eliminating the use of a saltshaker (don’t add salt) and by avoiding processed foods that are high in salt (e.g., sausage).
For most Americans, salt restriction and the salt content of food is not a big concern.
Potassium is another kind of “salt.” Patients with severe kidney problems need to be attentive about this type of salt. For the rest of us, it’s not something we need to read about on the label.
Carbohydrates are always listed and include fiber, starch, and all kinds of “sugars.” In healthy diets, carbohydrates will provide the bulk of needed calories. It’s the big base of the food pyramid. If food has calories and is not pure protein and/or fat, it has carbohydrates. Carbohydrates with fiber are preferred but not all carbohydrates have fiber (which is okay).
The most confusing aspect of the labels is “sugar.” Most people think of table sugar (which is sucrose) when “sugar” is mentioned. Any sweetener with calories is a “sugar.” Many foods normally contain some “sugar.” This means that “sugar” (like “salt”) cannot be totally eliminated from the diet.
What does need to be eliminated is plain table sugar (sucrose) and caloric sweeteners. A lot of sucrose and caloric sweeteners (more than 150 pounds per year) is deliberately added to food and drink (e.g., sodas). Sucrose has no fiber. All “sugars” are high in calories. Most Americans are not deficient in calories.
“Sugars” have no nutritional value. There is no healthy reason to eat or drink “sweets” (an exception is whole fruit). Reducing calories and increasing dietary fiber helps avoid excessive “sugars.” Sugar is high in calories.
Food labels also indicate protein content. Meats, eggs, and dairy products are our greatest sources of protein (and usually a source of fat, as well). The traditional food pyramid gives an approximate picture, calorie-wise, of how much protein (and some fat, which is okay) you should eat in relation to everything else.
Most Americans eat too much protein (and fat). Protein has no fiber but does have calories. Eating fiber in approximately the right caloric portions (e.g., food pyramid) eliminates the need to “protein count.”
All the basic food groups are pictured on the USDA food pyramid. A healthy diet consists of eating a variety of food in moderation (correct calorie count) and in the right proportions (balanced with fiber). The greatest source of fiber is located in the lower half (i.e. base) of the pyramid. S-o-o-o, the only thing you probably need to read on the label is calories and fiber.
Some final points: milk and water are the only two beverages you need (especially water). Most people need to eat more fiber. Eat fruit; don’t drink it. Your easiest source of fiber is high-fiber cereal and brown bread. Eat more vegetables. Many people need to eat less red meat and more fish. Too much fat, protein, or “sugar” is bad. Too many calories make you fat.
Counting calories is what counts. Then add as much fiber as possible. Read the label for these two items.
Is that simple enough? ©