What to Look For on Food Labels

By Kara Simpson, Health Coach & Trainer at Milestone Fitness

We live in a busy world where many people don’t have a lot of time to prepare or cook a lot of their food. Packaged food has come a long way in the past few years, but there are still some things we should be on the look-out for when it comes to eating off the shelf. If you’d like to eat healthy without processed ingredients in your food, then reading a food label will help you figure out which foods to avoid.


What to Avoid

High fructose corn syrup- has been shown to promote increased belly fat and insulin resistance. The fructose in HFCS goes directly to the liver and can lead to heart disease. It also slows the release of leptin in your body, the hormone that tells you when you’re full.

Trans fat- this helps keep food on the shelf for longer and raise your triglyceride and low density lipoprotein levels, which not only increases your risk of heart attack, but has been linked to prostate cancer, breast cancer, Alzheirme’s, diabetes and obesity. Be sure to avoid partially and hydrogenated fats as well.

Artificial sweeteners- Used in place of real sugar to lower calories, these sweeteners are linked to many side effects

Artificial flavors- These chemically made additives are used to make the food taste better since processing it strips the flavors. To make the flavors, a company can use up to 100 chemically made ingredients that can cause allergic and behavioral problems.

Artificial colors- chemical food dyes are made from known carcinogens. They have been linked to hyperactivity, ADD and ADHD.

Preservatives- to keep the shelf life of a product longer which also have many carcinogens that lead to cancer, can cause headaches, behavioral problems and affect the immune system.

The good news: Many companies are coming out with products without these ingredients! So if there’s a food out there that you’ve always loved but you’re concerned with it’s ingredients, you’re likely to find a product that includes more natural ingredients and none from this list above.


Look out for:

Added Sugars- Added sugars can quickly raise your blood sugar levels causing insulin to respond, which increases your blood sugar levels causing them to crash leading to move cravings. A vicious cycle! They can be hidden in your food labels under the names sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup or fructose.

Hydrogenated (& Partially Hydrogenated) Oils- these are oils that have been altered to chemically have certain properties like being solid at room temp. They disrupt normal fatty acid metabolism in your body (the good fats trying to create tissue). You may be surprised how many foods have these ingredients in them. Look for soybean, canola and palm oil as well for indicators of what to avoid.

Sodium- Having foods with too much sodium over time can disrupt your kidneys by not being able to remove the excess sodium levels. This can lead to high blood pressure among many other factors. Many pre-packaged meals contain high levels of sodium which should be avoided. No more than 2300mg of sodium per day can reduce your risk of high blood pressure. Just because it says "Organic" and has other health claims "No antibiotics, no hormones" doesn't mean it's healthy!

Serving Size-   The labels will tell you how many servings a product has and how big it should be. This is where measuring/weighing your food can come in handy once in awhile to get a better idea. Food labels are going to be changing to be more realistic with what people are actually consuming (because who drinks 1/2 bottle of a juice/protein drink?) with new appropriate measurements based on the serving.  


What to do:

When it comes to checking food labels and buying convenience foods, prioritize ingredients over calories. If the ingredient list is long with a bunch of things you don’t recognize, the calorie count doesn’t matter!

Establish your baseline. What makes food a no-go for you?

If your deal-breakers are on the food label, you don’t eat that food.  Some ideas include:

         Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils (source of trans fats)

         High fructose corn syrup 

         Added sugars (including hidden sources like syrups)

         Artificial colors (example: FD&C Blue #1)

         Canned items not labeled BPA free

         Atlantic or farmed salmon (instead of wild caught)

         Non-organic

         Nitrates/nitrites

         High sodium

Eat Whole foods – like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes -- retain their fiber as well as the beneficial phytochemicals and nutrients that are often removed in processed foods. One should aim to have foods that are a product of nature rather than a product of an industry. Choose foods that are nutrient dense- meaning they have fiber, vitamins, minerals, low sugar and fat, versus energy dense food that provide a surplus of calories with little value to your body. When you increase the amount of whole foods you’re eating (fruits & vegetables) it will help displace the processed foods in your diet and keep things very simple.

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