Skip the nutrition label and read the ingredient list

Stop reading the nutrition label. Seriously, it doesn’t do you any good.

Calories are not created equal. Even if they were created equal, our bodies are not. Fat won’t make you fat. Fat, carbs, and protein work best when consumed together in appropriate portion sizes (read more about PFC eating).

I strongly encourage you to check out the links in this article that will take you to other relevant articles I’ve written. This article is already 1,100 words so the links keep me from writing a novel!

A nutrition label is just a bunch of numbers and it distracts us from listening to our bodies because we are caught up with eating NUTRIENTS rather than FOOD. You can learn everything you need to know about a product by scrolling a little further down to the ingredient list. Here are some things to know:

1. Ingredients are listed in order of most to least
For example, if you read the ingredients in strawberry Pop Tarts- strawberries are at the bottom of the ingredient list long after 5 different types of sugar are listed.

2. Zero doesn’t really mean zero
Just because it says “trans fat free” doesn’t mean there isn’t any trans fat in the product. Confusing, I know, but the nutrition label will say zero grams while the ingredient list says otherwise. You can read how to identify trans fat in products here.

3. Identify added sugars
If you’re buying products that say “lite” or “light” you will often see the sugar content is less according to the number of grams on the nutrition label. However, a glance at the ingredient list will show whatever artificial sweetener that was added. Those are just as bad if not worse for you than regular sugar. Get to know the many faces of sugar if you don’t already; they are in everywhere. If you don’t know what the definitions are behind words like “reduced” or “light” I explain what they are here.

Currently, the grams of sugar listed on a label does not tell you if it’s from natural sugar versus added sugar. You have to look at the ingredient list to figure it out. For example, if you buy plain yogurt you will still see roughly 9 grams of sugar per cup. The only ingredient in plain yogurt is milk so you can conclude that the 9 grams of sugar is the natural sugar, lactose, found in milk. It’s another story if you buy flavored yogurt. You’ll see upwards of 23 grams of sugar; 9 naturally found in the milk, 14 from whatever type of sugar they added.

4. Health claims usually mean unhealthy products
Some claims sound healthy but the product itself is not healthy at all (ahem, whole grain Pop Tarts???). Ready to hear some gross facts? Michael Pollan shares a few in his book “In Defense of Food:”

When you buy fat-free products you’ll notice that the fat that gives product its creaminess is replaced with hydrogenated, highly processed oils or guar gum or carrageenan. Instead of eating real bacon bits, they’ve replaced the….bacon… with soy protein. That coffee creamer you love? Our fat-phobic culture got rid of the fatty cream and replaced it with corn starch and trans fat-filled oils. The list goes on.

5. Fortifying doesn’t make it healthy
Frosted shredded wheat has way more nutrients than plain shredded wheat because it has been fortified. That doesn’t make it healthier considering you have to eat a sugar bomb to get those nutrients and you hardly get any protein or fat if a bowl of cereal is your breakfast. If you’re eating more fruits and veggies and taking a multivitamin then you won’t need to rely on sugar-loaded cereals to get your nutrients.

6. Fats aren’t created equally
While oils like canola, peanut, or soybean will claim to have heart-healthy fats, they are damaged through so much processing that the benefits are essentially canceled out. However, these oils are way cheaper than olive or coconut oil so they are used in everything from salad dressings to cereals. Margarine or butter-imitations and many packaged products contain hidden trans fat (the devil). Lean cuts of conventionally-raised meat are fine since the hormones, toxins, pesticides or whatever else they feed the animals are stored in the fat BUT if you’re buying cuts of meat that are higher in fat your best bet is to get the grass-fed meats, pastured chickens, and wild-caught fish. A nutrition label won’t tell you that.

7. A long list of ingredients is a good indicator of a highly processed product
If you throw a bunch of peanuts in a blender for a few minutes, you get peanut butter. It’s hard to believe, but that’s really what happens. Nothing else is needed. However, if you take a look at a healthy-sounding product, Simply Jif, you’ll find the following ingredients:


Here we find cheap, processed oils (rapeseed is another word for canola) and added sugar. That doesn’t sound very simple to me. You would think Simply Jif would have a simple ingredient list like, I don’t know, simply peanuts.

8. We have been brainwashed with good vs. bad nutrients
Saturated fat and cholesterol are two components of food that we’ve been afraid of for decades due to a couple inconclusive studies that kind of thought they might lead to heart disease but weren’t too sure. This led to doctors telling patients to only eat 1-2 eggs a week. Thank goodness that isn’t true because I regularly eat around 4-6 every day! You’ll find according to the nutrition label, one egg provides 62% of your daily allowance of cholesterol. That sounds alarming but now we know cholesterol is an indicator of inflammation that contributes to heart disease, not the cause. High blood cholesterol doesn’t mean you’re eating too many eggs, it’s your body warning you that something has gone wrong- high stress, hormone imbalance, smoking, artificial sweeteners, over-exercising, lack of sleep, excess sugar consumption… these factors lead to inflammation; cholesterol sounds the alarm. Now that you know cholesterol isn’t a bad thing, ignore that 62% and eat more eggs, yolk and all.

Start reading, stop counting
I apologize if this overwhelms you but the food industry is so tricky when it comes to marketing products. The copious loopholes with health claims makes it easy to lead us into thinking we’re making healthy choices. I hope this opens your eyes to what nutrition labels aren’t telling you. If you have questions I’d be happy to answer them.

What other “healthy” claims have you seen on food packaging?

When calorie counting becomes an obsession

I recently got an iPhone 4s from my generous father and shared the useful apps I loaded. One of these apps was MyFitnessPal. I was so geeked that you could scan a barcode and get instant nutrition facts that I showed Dave more examples that he cared to see. As a dietitian I’ll be the first to admit that while I know what I should eat, that’s not always the case for me because 1. I am not perfect and 2. I have a major sweet tooth. Therefore, I wanted to log a few days to see what areas I could be working on since hey, I should be taking my own advice I provide clients on a daily basis, right?

Before MyFitnessPal there was Jess, Dietetic Student
An objective for one of my undergrad dietetic classes was to memorize the diabetic exchange list. This means that I learned how to calculate the calories, carbs, protein, and fat content based off of the serving size of just about any food. This is very useful now when I do a three-day calorie count to see if a patient is meeting their needs, but this memorization wasn’t initially beneficial to learn. Counting calories became second nature like reaching for milk to pour on your cereal is second nature. You don’t need to decide what to pour on your cereal; your hand just reaches for the milk (hopefully). I found myself adding up my total intake as I walked through the cafeteria line in the dorm and chose my lunch. I still ate what my body needed, I was just way more aware of the contents in every bite. If you read my post about body image, you know I was conscious of my lack of perfections. Comparing myself to an unrealistic standard was a little exhausting. Having a great community of women helped me address my new tendency to make food an idol and counting calories gradually lost its stronghold on me.

Enter marriage
Ever since I got married in 2010 it’s like a flip has been switched. Not that my insecurities completely vanished, but Dave continuously affirms my beauty; so much to the point where I forget about my insecurities because he never seems to notice them. My body does not look like any body you’ll see in a magazine but my body is Dave’s standard and frankly, he’s the only guy I want to want my body! Double win.

Well I mentioned earlier about logging my intake for a few days… I logged 60 continuous days down to the bite. The funny thing is that I’ve weighed the same since high school, I enjoy eating healthy, and I enjoy working out a few days each week. Despite a wicked sweet tooth, my body has stuck around a weight that is healthy for me and anything less than this would likely be a weight I can’t maintain without making drastic changes. Logging my food intake on MyFitnessPal simply confirmed this because at the end of the day, I was eating the calories my body needs to maintain my weight. I didn’t need an app to tell me this but I did like the affirmation. Apparently I valued an app’s conditional approval of my body more than my husband’s unconditional approval of my body.

Parting ways
I would have continued to log my intake if I hadn’t asked a dear friend what apps she recently got for her new iPhone. MyFitnessPal was included in her list but then she explained that she deleted it because she saw it becoming an obsession. Humble me, I just smiled and responded “oh that’s good you realized that.” Talk about conviction! I knew my unnecessary calorie counting was definitely headed in that direction and I deleted the app after leaving her home. My phone even asked me if I was sure if I wanted to delete the app and lose my 60 days of data entered. Ugh. Yes, because that data does not define me and my body naturally knows what it needs.

No one person is the same
I think MyFitnessPal is a great app and I’ve heard multiple stories of how it’s helped friends and family lose weight and see eating trends that they need to work on. A friend of mine lost 20 pounds from logging his intake because it helped him realize that while he was eating 1,600 calories from meals, he was eating an additional 1,600 calories from snacking throughout the day. Making a few changes caused the weight to melt off and now he’s maintaining a healthy weight. For me, the app is not necessary because I got a degree in nutrition and basically have the app in my head. I did learn that I consume more sugar than I should and that I eat a bigger dinner than I need. I blame Dave for the big dinner because I feel that I should have seconds if he has seconds. Unfortunately I’m not 6’2” and almost 200 pounds so I have less body to maintain than he does. It’s a crazy concept, but when I eat nutrient dense food when I’m hungry and don’t eat when I’m not hungry, my body seems to get what it needs. I hope you won’t think less of me for sharing a period of weakness but instead you’ll be encouraged to listen to your body and learn to love it.

What are your thoughts on nutrition apps for phones?

McDonalds nutrition information now displayed on menu

As of September 2012, McDonald’s nutrition information is now displayed on the menu. They are a few months ahead of the federal health care law mandate that will take affect in 2013, requiring chains with more than 20 outlets (fast food or dine-in) to display the calorie information on the menus. The plan behind this law is to make the public more aware of the calories in food choices and to throw another punch at the obesity epidemic. Here is the new look you’ll be seeing at this fast food chain:

Some chains like Starbucks and Panera already have the nutrition facts displayed on their menus. I know for a fact that seeing the calorie content in the items has definitely made me rethink my order a few times. Even though salads seem like the healthier choice, that’s not always the case (read my experience on salad vs. pasta dish at Noodles & Company). I LOOOOVE the peppermint mocha from Starbucks, but if you know anything about liquid holiday calories, you know that a 16-ounce serving contains 370 calories, and that’s even after choosing skim milk instead of whole! The calories in some of the drinks can quantify for an entire meal, or two! Even if the calories are listed next to the food item, you may want to clarify what the calorie content is based off of. If you ask for mocha and forget to say “skim,” they may make it with whole milk and you’ll be adding an extra 70 calories and 9 grams of fat. Drink up.

One dollop of encouragement I’ll share with you is that although yes, when calories expended exceed calories in will lead to weight loss, choosing the lower calorie item on the menu does not make it “healthier.” If you take a look at the “300 calories or less” section of the menu, what do you think will give you more bang for your buck in terms of nutrition: a caramel mocha or an egg McMuffin?

You can read the details of McDonald’s commitment to a nutrition-minded future here.

Do you think this new law will help you make wiser choices when eating out?

Nutrition Tips from a fit friend

This guest post brought to you by my fit friend, Hannah 🙂

Each individual health journey begins differently, and mine began with exercise. It was easier for me to make exercise a habit and worry about nutrition later. Now that exercise is as much of a habit for me as brushing my teeth in the morning, it’s time to focus on my nutrition. I won’t lie to you; this part is hard for me. It takes a lot of work to change poor eating habits. Fortunately, I do love to learn about nutrition. I read blogs, follow twitters, and subscribe to emails. Sometimes I do very well following all of the nutritional information I have absorbed, and other times I completely fail. So although I try to be a good example, sometimes you should do what I say instead of what I do 😉

Here is a list of tips that I have learned over the course of my unofficial nutritional research:

  1. Make a list of food items that you typically regret eating. Now, when you go to the grocery store – DON’T buy those things. Seriously, just don’t do it. If someone other than you does the grocery shopping, explain to them that you have made a decision to eat healthier and you would appreciate if they would refrain from buying said foods, or ask them to hide it! (Not in the oven, though. This could turn out bad.)
  2. Reduced fat or fat-free items are typically code for added chemicals and/or sugar. The fat that comes from natural foods really isn’t bad for you. You just need to practice moderation.
  3. Trans-fats are bad. I know, you already know this; but did you know that the FDA only regulates trans-fats over 0.5g per serving. So, if a serving has less than 0.5g of trans-fats, the company is allowed to claim 0g on the nutrition label.  If a bag of chips has 0.4g trans-fats per serving, and a bag has 10 servings in it, then you’re getting 4 g of trans-fats when the label told you zero! Rule of thumb: If the ingredients list says hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated, just don’t eat it.
    Side note from Jess: This is totally the case for Girl Scout Cookies.

    Don’t think about it, just keep on driving
  4. Read the ingredients list. Typically the longer the ingredient list, the worse it is for you.
  5. Whole foods are the way to go. Stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid boxed/processed foods. Eat more whole foods such as fruits, veggies, eggs, nuts, and non-processed meats.
  6. Pay attention to serving size.
  7. If you have a busy day ahead: Pack healthy snacks to eat every few hours instead of hitting the vending machine or binging when you finally do get to sit down and eat. A little planning goes a long way.
  8. Viewing foods as “good” or “bad” may cause frustration and guilt. Instead, try to use a stoplight approach. I learned this from fitness expert Chalene Johnson, and it really helped me. Divide foods into “green,” “yellow,” or “red” categories. Try to eat 80 percent of your food from the green category, but don’t punish yourself if you have something from the red category every once in a while.

Do you have any nutrition tips to add?

Workout Myths

“No pain no gain.”
“Eat massive amounts of protein.”
“Focus on one spot to minimize”

We are fed so much advice about working out that it’s hard to detect what is true or false. This misinformation can lead us down the wrong track. To defy the many workout myths, the Heart and Stroke Foundation came up with a few responses to these unfounded claims. Let’s get to work!

Women shouldn’t lift weights because it will make them bulky
Women don’t have the hormones it takes to bulk up. Leave that for men and their testosterone. I’ve been attending Body Pump 2-3 days a week (some days at 6:30AM!) for the past 4 months and while I have toned up a lot, I have not put on any weight or bulked up. On the contrary, strength training helps to keep bones strong and increases lean body mass (as opposed to fat). It takes more energy to maintain muscle than fat, so your body will also burn more calories by having more muscle.

The treadmill says I burned 600 calories. Now I can have a bigger dinner.
While you can tell the treadmill your age and weight, you can’t tell it your body composition. Suppose two guys weigh the same but one has18% body fat and the other has 38% body fat. The first guy has a higher percentage of muscle mass and will burn more than the guy running next to him with 38% body fat…and who happens to even know their own body fat percentage? Bottom line, don’t use the fact that you worked out to eat more.

If you’re not sweating, you’re not working out hard enough
If that was the case then I would be 100 pounds because I sweat just sitting in a chair. Sweating is not a solid indicator of exertion. When we perspire, it is our body’s way of cooling itself. You can burn a significant number of calories without sweating. How would you measure that if you were swimming anyway?

Your weight = your fitness
When I cheered in college, I weighed 135 pounds. I was the heaviest girl on the team and wore the biggest uniform. No joke. Most girls were 100-120 pounds. With that said, I could run 5 miles while almost all of them could not finish one mile or make it through strength conditioning. Weight should not be a marker for fitness. Let how you feel and your physical changes be the determinant of success. Your body will tone up, fat will be replaced by muscle, and you’ll have more energy. A scale can’t show that.

No pain, no gain
It’s one thing to feel sore the day after a workout. It’s another story to feel actual pain while working out. If what you’re doing hurts, you may be doing the move incorrectly or you  already have an injury. If it hurts, stop. Ask a trainer if your form is correct or judge for yourself if you are using too much weight.

Target specific areas
Unfortunately, your buns of steel video won’t spot train your butt to look the way the people in the video look. Spot training cannot target specific areas because your body pre-determines what fat stores it’s going to use. For example, doing sit-ups will strengthen your abs but they won’t take the fat off your stomach. Similarly, running will burn fat all over your body, not just your legs. The best way to “spot-reduce” is through a combination of strength training and cardio.

What are some other workout myths you’ve heard?

Juicing: Get the Facts

Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead
Last month I watched the 2010 documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. I had never heard of it before until Dave & I stumbled across it on Netflix. Both Joe and Phil’s stories are a very powerful testimony to the power of whole foods and healthy choices. I’m not sure how much this documentary has affected the growing juicing trend, but it seems to be gaining mainstream momentum!

What is juicing?
Juicing refers to limiting the diet to only juice extracted from fruits and vegetables. The duration of time can vary from a few days up to a whopping 60 days like on FS&ND. Other terms used for juicing are cleansing, juice detox, or juice fasting.

What are the benefits of juicing?
America loves food. Sadly, fruits and vegetables don’t stand a chance to sugar, fat, and salt in the American diet. It is rare that anyone eats the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables let alone eat the amount consistently. Fruits and vegetables contain a great source of micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that put our bodies on the path to optimal health. There is a lot of evidence supporting the health benefit claims of increased fruit and vegetable consumption. If you watch the documentary, you’ll see Joe’s lab values go from terrible to normal within the 60 days and he even gets off almost all of his medication (he took a LOT of meds). The body knows what it needs and craves food closest to its natural form.

Watch out
Although there are great benefits to juicing, there are a few factors to be cautious of:
– A sudden increase of fruit & vegetable consumption may cause bloating, gas, or diarrhea
– Some micro-nutrients can interfere with medications. I really appreciated that Joe sought out medical monitoring in his documentary so he didn’t wind up in a bind. If you have diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, or really any other health condition, you should consult with your doctor before starting to juice.
– Juicing can lead to weight gain if you’re not cutting calories elsewhere in your diet or increasing your physical activity. Calories in > calories out to gain weight. Calories in = calories out to maintain. Calories in < calories out to lose weight.
– Juice-only diets/fasts that restrict calories may make it difficult to maintain muscle mass while you lose weight. There’s not much fat intake during juicing either, so fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, E, and K might have a hard time getting absorbed.
– Juicers can be expensive. The amount of produce purchased in order to juice enough calories can add up to quite a bill, but it will likely be compensated for since you won’t be buying as much in other grocery categories

If you decide to juice
– It’s up to you if you want to use organic produce or not. Regardless of what you choose, always wash your produce thoroughly before juicing.
– Only make what you can drink right away. Fresh juice isn’t pasteurized so it can develop harmful bacteria quickly.
– Aim for a 3-to-1 ratio of vegetables to fruit since too much fruit can cause a spike in blood sugar. The amount of fiber depends on how much pulp you leave in.
– If you want to add a kick of protein and heart-healthy fats, throw in some Greek Yogurt, low-fat milk, or some nuts.

Final words
I’ve said this before, but there is no one food and no one diet that is the solution to your health. There’s also limited clinical evidence to distinguish the effect of juice-alone or concentrated juice powders on human health as opposed to eating the whole fruit or vegetable. However, juicing can be a great way to meet your daily recommendations since you can pack so much in one glass.

Besides, when would you ever be able to eat this much food in one sitting??
Beginner’s Green Juice
(from Food and Nutrition Magazine)
2 cups kale
1 cup spinach
1 cucumber
2 celery stalks
1/2 green apple, stem/core removed, skin on
1/2 lemon, peeled

Estimated nutrition per serving (2 cups strained)
Calories 160
Total Fat 1.5 grams
Carbohydrates 37 grams
Protein 7 grams
Vitamin A 480%
Vitamin C 30%
Calcium 30%
Iron 25%

Have you tried juicing before? How did it go?

Ballpark Nutrition

Dave & I watched Michigan State play the University of Michigan this weekend in baseball. We left after the 7th inning even though the score was 7-7. MSU ended up winning in the 13th inning. I forgot how slow baseball games could be! Something that amazed me was how much money the guy in front of me spent on food from the concession stands. He had two sons with him that looked about 9 or 10 years old and during the course of the game they bought 3 slices of pizza ($7.50), cracker jacks ($4), three sodas ($7.50), and two nachos with cheese ($6). They spent $25 just on food, and that was at a college baseball game! Dave’s been talking about going to see the Detroit Tigers play sometime this summer and it made me wonder how much money some families or individuals drop with even higher concession prices.

Aside from being overpriced, there really aren’t many healthy choices to choose from at games. That soft pretzel and cheese won’t do much to curb your hunger but it will put a dent in your wallet and calorie consumption. If you’ve budgeted for food & beverage expenses, it may also help to know what your not-good, better, and best choices are at the concession stand.

Regular hot dog with mustard: 290 calories
2 Tbsp sauerkraut adds 5-10 more calories, 2 Tbsp ketchup adds 30 more calories, 2 Tbsp relish adds 40 calories. It all adds up, especially if you get the foot long hot dog!

Super Nachos & Cheese (40 chips, 4oz cheese): >1,500 calories
AH! You’re better off going with a 6 oz serving of French fries for 500 calories

8 oz bag of peanuts: 840 calories
Peanuts do contain heart healthy (monounsaturated) fats and other vitamins & minerals, so it could be a healthy choice if split with a friend

5.5 oz soft pretzel: 400 calories
The 8 ounce pretzels can pack about 700 calories. Calories from cheese is not included. Mustard is a low calorie condiment & would be a better choice in this case.

3.5 oz bag of Cracker Jacks: 420 calories
Cracker Jacks are basically candy-coated popcorn with some nuts thrown in with the mix. You’d be better off getting plain peanuts.

Bag of Cotton candy: 210 calories
Low calorie option, but not filling at all and no nutrients included

Slice of Pizza: 435 calories
Stadium pizza is usually a little bigger than a typical slice, usually 1/6 of a 16-inch pie versus 1/8.

20-ounce draft beer: 240 calories
Get a light draft and save 60 calories. Or just limit yourself to one or two and drink water the rest of the game.

Other tips for the game:

  • Not many ballparks will allow you to bring outside food or beverages in the stadium, so my first suggestion would be to not go to a game hungry. Having an early lunch before the game can help prevent spontaneous purchases for items.
  • Sneak a piece of fruit in your jacket or bag or your own Ziploc with home made trail mix (nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate chips!)
  • Split snacks
  • Don’t get caught by the $0.60 more for the bigger size; it saves you $0.60 but can cost you hundreds of calories
  • Be mindful while you eat. If you’re focused on the game, you might not be focusing on your food and may consume more than you’d like and you really didn’t even get to enjoy it.
  • Some stadiums offer healthier options like frozen bananas, salads, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, frozen yogurt, and fruit smoothies.

Are you going to a baseball game this summer?