5 Tips to Help You Better Understand Food Labels Part 1


I was inspired to write this article by one of my personal training clients who expressed frustration in trying to understand some of the information on food labels. You can have the best intentions of picking up foods to help you reach your health and fitness goals, but still end up buying foods that sabotage your success, because the labels make them sound healthier than they really are. I will address five of the most common sources of confusion and misleading advertising found on food labels to enable you to make more informed decisions when shopping.

Tip 1: Read the ingredients list

The ingredients list is an important source of information on a food label, because it tells you what is in the food and helps you determine about how healthy a food really is. Unfortunately, the ingredients list often goes overlooked, probably because there are many unfamiliar terms. There are 2 main things to understand about the ingredients list: the ingredient order and the ingredients themselves.

The ingredients are always in order from the ingredient that weighs the most to the one that weighs the least. While this does not mean that the first ingredient contains the most calories, it does tell you the primary ingredients that make up the food and gives you an idea of the overall health of the food. For example, if a package says it includes whole grains (which is good), but the first ingredient listed is bleached enriched whole wheat flour (not a whole grain) and the first whole grain is listed halfway down the list, you can determine that only a small amount of the carbohydrates are actually whole grains.

As for the ingredients themselves, you have probably noticed a lot of strange ingredients on the list, especially towards the end of the list. These items are usually 1 of 3 things: added micronutrients (vitamins & minerals), spices, or artificial ingredients (flavor enhancers, colors, or preservatives). Although these ingredients generally occur in small quantities, they significantly impact your health. As a general rule, nutrients and spices are healthy, while artificial ingredients should be avoided as much as possible.

Of course the problem with reading the ingredients is that very few people actually understand the names of everything on the list, so it can be difficult to determine what you are looking at. For example cyanocobalamin, which may sound bad, is actually another name for vitamin B-12. Since it would take way too long explain all the ingredients in an article, I will justask you to send me questions about any ingredients you want to know more about. In this article I will focus on the most important ingredients to avoid for good health and improved fat loss.

One of the most common and unhealthy ingredients found in many foods is “partially hydrogenated” oil. After any food is consumed, the body must be break it down into smaller parts before it can be used. Hydrogenation is a process that alters fat molecules so they are difficult for the body to break down and use. This makes hydrogenated oil unhealthy and it should be avoided as much as possible. If you have to buy hydrogenated products, purchase the brands that list another oil before the hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list.

When discussing unhealthy carbohydrates, you probably already know to limit consumption of sugar, especially refined sugar (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). Another less known type of carbohydrate to avoid is any flour/grain that has been “bleached.” Bleaching is a process that strips nutrients out of the ingredient. Companies try to make these ingredients sound better by making them “enriched.” Enriching adds some nutrients to the ingredient, but products in their natural state (whole grains) are still healthier than enriched products.

A well-known ingredient to avoid is MSG or monosodium glutamate, but this is a case where trying to avoid MSG and actually avoiding it are two different things. A nutritional label may list MSG or monosodium glutamate, but it might be listed as “Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein” or even “natural flavors” instead. “Natural flavors” means any added flavor that comes from something that can be found in nature. Since MSG can be made by breaking down proteins, it can be called a natural flavor. The good news for avoiding MSG is that it is most commonly found in foods that have other unhealthy ingredients and you will not find it in raw/natural products without added ingredients (fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, etc.).

The last ingredients I will point out to avoid are “nitrates” or “nitrites,” which are generally found in processed meat products (especially bacon and ham). These ingredients are believed to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) and products containing them should be consumed sparingly. In many cases, alternatives without nitrates or nitrites are available, but you may have to go to a natural/health food store.

There are of course many other unhealthy ingredients, but these are some of the biggest offenders. Also, if you avoid foods with these ingredients, you will probably be avoiding a lot of the other unhealthy ingredients as well.

Tip 2: Understand the serving size

The number of calories in a serving can be important, but you also have to look at the serving size. If a package says “only 100 calories per serving,” it is usually unlikely that you will only eat one serving. This is especially true for chips, cookies, and other so called “junk food”. Many packages will list a serving size as 1 or 2 cookies or 5-10 chips or crackers. Realistically, most people will eat more than a serving at a time. When looking at a product, try to estimate how much you would realistically eat at one time and how many calories that would be. Knowing how many calories you would eat at one time is much more important than knowing the number of calories is in a serving on the package.

Tip 3: Percentage of fat and percentage of calories from fat are not the same thing:

It is common, especially with meats, to see labels advertise their products as 90-99 % fat-free. These labels are designed to make you think a food contains a low amount of fat, but unfortunately this number refers to the percentage of weight that is fat, not the percentage of calories. The percentage of calories from fat is the number that matters and it will be very different from the percentage of fat. For example, a food that is 95 % fat-free can typically have about 40% fat calories. This is because there are many ingredients in food such as water and nutrients that have weight but do not add calories to the food. Also, 1 gram of fat has over twice as many calories as 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein.

The good news is that food labels now have the calories from fat listed on the label by the total calorie per serving number. If you want the percentage of calories from fat you will have to divide the fat calories by the total calories. You can usually get a close estimate by looking at the numbers. Keep in mind that the percentage does not tell you anything about how healthy or unhealthy the fat is. This is important, because if you are buying a product that contains healthy fats, such as salmon, then a high percentage of calories from fat is actually good.

Finding the percentage of calories from fat is very useful for comparing products that are known for having unhealthy fats, such as meat, cheese, or anything with partially hydrogenated oil near the top of the ingredients list. This will help you make choices that minimize your intake of unhealthy fats. An added benefit to looking at the percentage of calories from fat is that regardless of the serving size, the percentage will always be the same and you can make a direct comparison between products.

Part 2 will discuss different labeling terms such as “lite” and “reduced”. I will also explain “net carbs” and the important relationship between carbohydrates and insulin.

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About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at ross@precisionhealth-fitness.com  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

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