Label Reading 101: How To Pick Healthy Foods

Flip a packaged food over and have a look at the nutrition information on the back. Lots of numbers, big words, tiny print. Is it any wonder people get confused?

Reading labels can be an effort – at least when you aren’t used to it. But they are also a treasure trove of information about how that food might impact your health, once you know what to look for. Learning labels takes a little thought – mainly, figuring out what you are looking for – and then a little practice. Give it a try and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly you’ll get the hang of it!

The Background

Many factors determine how “healthy” a food is. But regardless of your personal situation (allergies, intolerances, or other specific dietary needs), there are a few fundamental ways to help you determine if a food is going to be good for you. None of these will probably come as a surprise, but instead of just telling you to “read labels”, we’re going to discuss exactly what you want to be looking for when you’re looking, giving you a clear understanding of how to make the best choice (for you!).

It is generally assumed that the less processed a food is, the higher its nutritional value will be. Higher nutrient value is, of course, a big step toward being healthier and better for your body. More processed foods, on the other hand, are usually made up of whole ingredients that have been broken down, some parts taken out, other additives (sometimes from other food products, other times manufactured) put in to keep some sort of appealing taste and/or texture, and then reassembled into the final food product. Cheap for the manufacturer, often appealing to the consumer, but usually these are not things that our bodies love – even if it can boast being “low carb” or “fat free”. (Though as it turns out, neither low-carb nor fat-free foods are sure paths to a healthy diet.)

Actual real food, on the other hand, is minimally processed and has a much higher nutritional value, and often doesn’t even have a package or label. Common sense tells us “fresh is best”, right? Since that’s not always possible (or practical), this article is directed towards choosing the healthiest of the foods that actually come in packages and with labels.

So, how do you determine to maximize the health and nutrient value of the foods you choose to buy and eat?

Check the ingredients

This is my first stop on a food label, even before the nutrition numbers. Since each ingredient and added component (the additives) of a food need to be listed, the shorter the list, the less processed that food is likely to be. My rule of thumb is that any packaged food that I buy has five ingredients or less.

Interesting side note: Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the ingredient that comprises the largest percentage of a food will be listed first, the second largest percentage will be listed second, and so on. This can be helpful if you’re after a specific packaged food that has something relatively undesirable in it, since it can help you gauge how much of that ingredient you might actually be consuming, and whether you are ok with that amount or whether you would prefer to avoid it.

Check the ingredients – part two

Other things I’m thinking about when I’m checking out the ingredients list:

Can I actually pronounce what’s on that list? You should be able to. At the very least, you can probably recognize when something doesn’t sound like it’s naturally occurring.

Are there numbers? Numbers are not ingredients or components of food items occurring in nature. Red 5? Steer clear.

Would I cook with what’s on that list (or at the least, expect that a chef could cook with it)? If you could (conceivably) purchase and cook with each ingredient on the list, you probably have a less processed, more nutritious food on your hands. If an ingredient sounds like you might need to get it from a lab instead of a supermarket, you might not want to be putting it in your body.

The big exception: Many packaged foods are fortified with added vitamins. This is not always undesirable, as these particular additives can be highly beneficial to health and body function. But often what we might recognize as good stuff can be on an ingredient list under a different name – for example, Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin, a name that is definitely more chemical-sounding.  If the ingredient list is pretty simple with one or two exceptions that you aren’t sure about, a quick Google search can tell you all about the mystery words!

Read the Nutrition Label

In Australia, certain information is required to be on a food label, including:

  • The energy content: In everyday terms, this is the calorie count. The term Kilojoule is also becoming more popular. Both refer to how much energy the food provides.
  • The protein content.
  • The fat content, including the amount of saturated fat.
  • The Carbohydrate content, including the combined amount of naturally occurring and added sugars.
  • The sodium content.
  • The amount of any other nutrient (or biologically active substance) about which a claim is made. For instance, if a package states a food give you B vitamins, it should list those vitamins on the nutrition label. Go look at your jar of Vegemite and you’ll see what I mean!

My goal in choosing a given food is to maximize the nutrient value while minimizing the calorie (energy) content.  I primarily look at energy content and protein. If there isn’t a clear preferred choice, I’ll also check out total carbohydrates and relative amount of sugar, and lastly, total fat and how much of which kind(s).

I’ll also take into consideration the serving size, since the nutrition numbers mean nothing without that figure. And since often the serving size is just some random number, here’s my pro tip for figuring out if that “serving” is realistically what I’ll be eating: Look at the serving size compared to the total package size. For instance, if the total package weight is 400g and a serving size is 100g, I’ll consider whether I’m likely to eat a quarter of that package. If I think that’s unrealistic, but I still plan to buy that food, I’ll do some mental math – or get out my phone – and revise that nutritional data upward or downward as needed.

Lastly, when I have the option, I also like to compare the nutrition data from a few different brands of the same or similar products, since I’m usually shopping for something specific and I want the healthiest version. The “per 100g” column provided alongside the “serving size” column makes it way easier to compare which brand is going to meet my needs the best.

Ignore the rest of the packaging (In general)

Ever heard the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”??

Simply put, many products that make health claims on the packaging miss the mark in other ways. Because low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free products have often been processed to meet these claims, these foods are often additive-heavy to keep the food appealing when we actually eat it.

Call me cynical, but I generally regard health claims on food packages with suspicion. That specific claim may be true, but what in that food has been lost in order to meet that claim? Often what has been given up (or taken out) isn’t worth the “benefit” you get, particularly when other options are available. But that’s just one lady’s opinion!

 

Get healthy. Feel great. Enjoy life more. HealthFit Coaching provides guidance and support in making healthy habits work with your lifestyle. Get in touch to find out more about how coaching will help you.


Staying Informed About Your Health Care – A How-To List

Going to the doctor or other health care practitioner can be stressful, and it’s easy to feel rushed when you’re at an appointment. It’s quite often “hurry up and wait”, and that pressure can lead us to rush through our part of the visit as well. We worry we’ll seem slow on the uptake if we don’t understand what’s being told to us, or that having questions will make us seem pushy or uncooperative.

It’s totally normal to feel this way – we’ve been brought up with the concept that doctors are busy and important, so who are we to get in the way? It’s important to remember though, that you are uniquely positioned to discuss your health with your doctor, and you have a duty to yourself to take the best care of your body that you can. After all, you’re the only one with the knowledge and experience of living your life, in your body, and how that feels. No one will care more about your life than you!

That’s not to say your doctor doesn’t care about you – they do want the best for you. But when appointment are set 10-15 minutes apart, if you don’t speak up, it can be easy for the doctor to hit the highlights of what’s happening and what they want to do about it. Unfortunately, hitting the highlights can be easy for a doctor with the background knowledge of how a healthy body works, what might be happening with yours, and what can be done to move back towards good health. Take advantage of this knowledge – you’ll find that your doctor is happy to explain things in more detail. You’ll be better informed, and will likely be able to make better choices about your healthcare for years to come. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your doctor’s appointment, though these points apply to any visit with anyone taking part in your health care, including exercise physiologists and personal trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists – you name it!

Come prepared. Whether you have a list of questions or a list of symptoms – no matter how simple, or how complicated – writing these down in the lead up to your appointment will help you make sure you don’t miss anything. This goes even if it’s just a general check-up.

Take notes at your doctor’s appointment. Your doctor went to school for YEARS to simply begin to understand what they are trying to tell you in five minutes. You probably won’t remember everything they are saying, so be a smarty-pants and write it down. Your doctor will be impressed.

Find out in detail what you can expect from a prescription or treatment. If you don’t know what to expect, how will you know if it’s working? Additionally, some treatments and prescriptions can have heavy-duty side effects, and you should be aware of what to look for.

If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification. Doctors LOVE patients who are actively engaged in their own medical care, and they’ll take more time to explain things and make sure that you understand to your own satisfaction. Don’t hesitate to ask.

Keep track of your treatments, prescriptions, supplements, and surgeries. Don’t count on your medical office to have an up-to-date list, especially if you are seeing multiple health care practitioners. Helping them stay current will help you get better care.

Pay attention to what happens when you do (or don’t) take your prescriptions, supplements, or otherwise follow doctor’s orders.
Taking (or missing) a tablet, an appointment, or a workout may or may not have an immediate effect (and I’m certainly not suggesting you experiment with skipping things you should be doing!) Sometimes we forget things though, and it’s handy to reflect on whether that makes a difference to how you’re feeling in the days after the fact.

Ask your doctor if they have additional materials that can help you understand your condition or treatment. This is especially useful if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a health condition, or have been prescribed a new treatment of some sort. People learn and retain information in a variety of ways. If your doctor can show you a video, give you a booklet with pictures and information, or otherwise find ways to help you understand what’s going on with your body, you’re likely to gain a much better understanding. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Talk to the nurses! The nursing staff is a collective goldmine of experience, and can answer many of your health questions just as well as the doctor. You might have a little more time with a nurse, as well, so you might as well make the most of it.

Bring a second set of ears. If you have someone close enough to share your health information with, it can be handy to have a second set of ears to help absorb information, and they may ask some good questions that you don’t think of.

Find out how to get further information. It can be tough to get all your info in one visit, and Dr. Google is a BAD doctor. Find out who you can get in touch with, and how to do it, if you have additional questions or want more information.

Don’t be afraid to change doctors. There are pros and cons to this – in many ways, it’s great to be working with someone who is deeply familiar with your health history. But if you find that your doc is unwilling to share information, or you’re otherwise unhappy with your care, it’s worth finding someone you click with.

Don’t forget, your doctor actually works for you. Stay healthy, my friends!


Exercise motivation: What’s Your Why?

Let me pose a question to you: Why are you working so hard to improve your health and fitness? If you’re feeling stuck with your exercise motivation, it might be something to ask yourself. And give it some serious consideration!

I ended up in this business because I love the buzz I get when a client exclaims: I don’t have to take my blood pressure medication anymore! Or, my knees don’t hurt! Or, I can’t believe how good I feel!

It’s awesome to be a part of that. But it’s taken me the better part of a decade to figure out that helping people feel better is why I stay up at night poring over research papers or checking out what other coaches are doing.  I want each client to get the best program, with the most up to date information and most efficient approach possible. I want you to feel better, fast, and to help you find a way to do it that works for you.

Finding what kind of exercise works for you is a key component of creating a successful program. It helps to set SMART goals and create measurable steps to mark progress. I have coached this way for years with a lot of success. But sometimes progress stalls and clients plateau, and I’m juggling to kick-start their motivation again. There is a piece missing.

That piece is Why.

Goals are great, and very useful to keep you going when the going gets tough. But even the best goals aren’t always enough to take you all the way. Knowing your own exercise motivation – the personal connection to your goal – makes it meaningful.

A classic example: I had a client, Bryan, who came to me for help with training to run a marathon. His two best friends had started running a few years before, and had started running races not long after. His friends had decided to do the Las Vegas marathon, and had invited him along to hang out. Bryan decided he’d like to run the marathon too, but needed to get training right away. A marathon is a classic SMART goal: You have a set event date, by which you have to be capable of a certain measurable thing, and you can prepare for this by taking the right steps at the right times.

Bryan’s preferred training time was early morning, before work. He was going strong for quite some time, making great progress with increased running distances and appropriately incorporating strength training and recovery activities. About two-thirds of the way through his training program, it started getting harder to continue those early morning training runs. After discussing how he felt the training plan was going overall, we turned back to the ultimate goal: Finishing the marathon with his friends. Bryan was confident that he could run the distance, but wasn’t sure he could keep pace with his friends. The thought of getting left behind was a huge turn-off.

This was a lightbulb moment: Running the marathon wasn’t about running a marathon. It was about having an equal part in an amazing experience with his closest friends. A couple small tweaks to the training program to help his speed, and he was pumped to be running again. He was getting up even earlier to make sure he warmed up well before his training runs. His times dropped a little and his confidence and excitement skyrocketed. On race day, he kept pace with his friends and more importantly, had a great time.

Bryan figured out why he wanted to run.

We all have our own preferences in how we train, and what we train for. But these are usually not unique. What is unique is your own exercise motivation – your why. Figuring this out can be a time-and-thought-consuming process. It’s not uncommon to have false starts as you go. But it’s also easier to pick up and try again. There is no stronger inspiration than your deepest desires.

So, what’s your why? 


Making Positive Changes

Making changes to our normal routine or habits can be difficult at the best of times, and especially when the change we want or need to make isn’t one we are excited about. Many people find themselves in this sort of conundrum when it comes to improving their health, fitness, and wellbeing. We know we should be doing something different, and we even have a good idea of what is it, but we just don’t realllly want to.

However, we don’t need to make sweeping changes to have a positive effect on our lives. Making good food choices and moving our bodies more are where we’ll most benefit, and if we can make progress in one or both of these, we are well on our way to feeling (and looking and living) better.

But where to actually begin? There is abundant information available, and mis-information too. Couple that with frequent pressure (both from external sources like the media, and from ourselves) to doing everything right, and the thought of making any change can be overwhelming.

Let’s fix that.

In a nutshell, the key to making permanent change to habits or routine is to set yourself up for success. Pick ONE thing to work on at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed by making a million changes all at once. And go easy on yourself: New habits and healthier routines are created when we make our desired behavior or choice easier than making our old, habitual, less desirable choice.

Example 1: You are on your way home from work and starving. The options: Pizza, or making a healthy dinner… Hmm.

What if you had some chicken and salad ready and waiting for you when you got home? Because there is no work and no waiting involved, you’re more likely to head straight for that (even if pizza sounds more appealing).

Example 2: You are thinking about exercising more, but you HATE the thought of joining a gym. Then a friend calls and asks if you want to join a recreational soccer team (or insert other fun activity here: hiking, running around with the kids, line dancing, etc.).

Picking an activity that involves movement and fun is going to beat the activity that involves movement and boring and hard. Bringing a friend along can also up the enjoyment factor, making you even more likely to stick with it.

Bearing in mind that we want to pick something that is an easy addition to our lives, the best changes we can make are the ones that will have the greatest impact on our lives. We want the biggest bang-for-buck, especially early on, because success in itself is motivating. The more you have, the more inspired you are to work harder, and hard stuff becomes easier because it’s your ticket to continued progress. “Most impactful” can be different things to different people, so it’s worth taking time to consider what life might look like with one new habit versus another.

Bear in mind that you might not come up with an idea that is totally fun and really easy – sometimes you give a little of one to get a little of the other, and that’s ok too, as long as it is ok with you. There are no rules – just keep tweaking an idea until it really works.

The Takeaway: When you want to make a change, make it easy on yourself:

  • Choose one new activity, behavior, or choice to work on at a time. This allows us to focus, and cements this new, positive change faster. Adding a second desired change greatly reduces our ability to make either permanent. Stick with one thing until you find yourself doing it without thinking about it, then consider what change you might like to make next.
  • Choose the simple, most impactful things to work on first. Most of us have a number of ideas about what we can do to “get healthier”, thanks to a seemingly-infinite number of news sources. Worry more about eating less cake than eating more kale (or whatever the latest trendy superfood is).
    • Make it easy by choosing the things that are easy for YOU
    • Think about “bang for buck” – what is the one thing you could do that will give the most progress?
    • Realize that the easiest thing might not have the biggest bang-for-buck, and that’s ok!
  • Master the basics, and then move to greater challenges. Start with something you are confident that you can be successful with. Ask yourself: Am I confident that I can 90% stick with this chance for the next week? If yes, go for it! If not, continue to simplify it until you feel that you can stick with it 90% of the time.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. None of are on our best behavior all the time. This is why we use the “90% test”. When you make a choice that isn’t in line with your changed behavior, don’t stress about it. Every hour of every day can be a fresh start, so if you slip up, shake it off and keep moving forward.
  • Do celebrate your successes. (Maybe not with cake.) One of the best ways to cement a change is to associate it with something you enjoy. This can be done on a daily basis: think about eating extra broccoli as you enjoy that juicy steak, or go walking with a friend instead of by yourself. Celebrate your bigger successes too. When you feel confident in your new habit, reward yourself – go for a massage, get a manicure, see a movie. Treat yo’ self!

Last but not least, remember that small steps are the best approach. Take your time and you’ll create lasting habits and permanent, satisfying change!