When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, regular workouts and a nutritious diet go hand in hand. But how do you avoid fads and falsehoods when it comes to advice on what to eat? Begin with a clear understanding of how to select the healthiest foods to fuel your body. That means understanding the ingredients when reading food labels, choosing the healthiest whole foods and avoiding calorie-laden foods marketed as healthy.

What Does Reading Labels Tell You?

reading labelsStart With Locally Grown, Whole Foods

If it seems like your grocer’s shelves are overrun with new types of processed foods every time you make a visit to the market, it isn’t your imagination. Large food conglomerates introduce new products on a regular basis, yet nearly all are highly processed and lack nutritional value.

The easiest way to avoid the headache of understanding food labels is to begin basing your diet on whole foods that don’t require a complicated nutrition label—fresh vegetables and fruits. When possible, choose locally grown produce to avoid loss of nutritional value during long-distance transport. Choosing locally grown or organic produce also helps you avoid pesticide residue and unnecessary additives.

Keep in mind that produce, meats and other products labeled “natural” are not equivalent to those labeled “certified organic.” The latter requires that farmers and growers go through rigorous processes to meet certified organic standards. There are no such stipulations for use of the term “natural,” rendering such a label meaningless.

Serving Size and Calories

A good place to start in making your way through the maze of reading labels is with the serving size information. While the tendency is to glance at the calorie count first, that number isn’t useful unless you also check the serving size. It isn’t unusual to be shocked at how small a single portion is.

For example, the calorie count found on a box of crackers may seem reasonable at a relatively low 120 calories. But when you check the serving size and find out you can only eat about a dozen tiny snack crackers to stay within that parameter, those processed crackers begin to lose their appeal. The same holds true for beverages. Even bottles of juice or soda that appear to be single servings may state on their nutrition labels that the information is based on the bottle holding 2.5 servings.

Be sure to look at the calories from fat as well as the overall calories. In many cases, so-called reduced-calorie foods have had the fat content increased to make up for reduced amounts of sweetener while low-fat foods are often higher in natural and artificial sweeteners.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a good rule of thumb for comparing the various calorie content in food is as follows:

  • 40 Calories is low
  • 100 Calories is moderate
  • 400 Calories or more is high

These suggested levels are based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet.

Limit Some Nutrients, Increase Others

You can now move down to the other nutritional information where you will find a breakdown of nutrients in the food. Consuming too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium has been shown to increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, including heart disease, certain cancers and hypertension.

On the other hand, most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. When reading labels, look for foods that have significant amounts of these nutrients and try to incorporate them into your meal planning.

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