What's Lurking Behind That Nutrition Label?
An important part of getting healthy and fit is learning how to read nutrition labels. Grocery store shelves are jam packed with food that contributes to heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. A lot of food labelling is confusing and even downright deceptive, so here are some things to be aware of when you're buying food.
The Danger of Hidden Trans Fats
Trans fats are very dangerous to your health. They raise bad LDL cholesterol and at the same time lower good HDL cholesterol, leading to clogged arteries and, ultimately, heart attack or stroke. The American Heart Association recommends you consume less than 2 grams per day, but advises that there is no safe level. They should be avoided completely.
The government requires labelling of trans fats, but allows manufacturers to claim zero trans fat if there is less than 0.5 gram per serving. The manufacturer will define a serving size as a ridiculously small amount (like three crackers) so they can say on the package that there are no trans fats. You have to check the label. Avoid any product with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or shortening of any kind.
Personally, I avoid any product from a manufacturer who uses such deceptive practices. They have proven they can't be trusted.
How Whole Are Those Grains?
Refined flours are quickly broken down into sugar by your body, causing a spike in blood glucose and an insulin response. Your pancreas works very hard to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream, and this results in a glucose crash and the adrenal glands working overtime to deal with the fast drop. Spiking and crashing your blood sugar is very bad for your health. It lowers your metabolism and causes your body to store fat more efficiently. Overburdening your pancreas and adrenal glands eventually causes them to lose function, leading to diabetes, hypoglycemia, and chronic fatigue.
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Fiber keeps your blood sugar from spiking and is very important for reducing cholesterol and protecting against heart disease. For any food made from grain, such as bread or pasta or cereal, the first word on the nutrition label should be either whole or oat. Organic unbleached wheat flour sounds good, but it's just white flour. It has no fiber at all. "Made with whole grain" doesn't mean that's all there is in it. It can be, and usually is, mostly refined flour. Multigrain or seven grain doesn't mean that there's any whole grain in it at all. 100% whole grain is what you want to look for.
Sugar, Sugar Everywhere
As bad as refined flour is, refined sugar is much, much worse. It causes all the same problems but to an even greater extent. In addition, sugar has no nutrient value so it robs your body of nutrients that are required to metabolize it. This can cause mineral deficits leading to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels and a host of health problems. Sugar also depresses the immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses. And it causes yeast overgrowth in the gut, which can lead to depression, fatigue, constipation, headaches, congestion, and many more problems.
Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to differentiate between natural sources of sugar, such as the fructose in fruit, and added sugar. The sugar in fruit doesn't have the same effect as refined sugar because the fiber in the fruit slows down the body's metabolism of the sugar and protects your blood from spiking. However, if you extract the fructose and add that to a product that has little or no fiber it's almost as bad as sucrose (white sugar). In fact, products with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) should be avoided completely. This highly concentrated form of fructose is worse than sucrose.
Manuacturers have also gotten very good at hiding sugar content. Ingredients are supposed to be listed by amount (according to weight), but manufacturers will list sugars by different types—fructose, sucrose, xylitol, maltodextrin, amasake, and so on—so it doesn't seem like a major ingredient. Add them all together and they're one of the main ingredients, if not the main one.
Sugar is hiding in all sorts of processed foods. Even many foods marketed as healthy have hidden sugar. The only way to know whether there's any added sugar is to check the list of ingredients. Rather than pick up a fruit yogurt with added sugar, pick up plain yogurt with no added sugar and add your own fruit. Instead of buying ketchup that contains HFCS, buy ketchup sweetened with agave nectar.
Added sugar, that which does not occur naturally in fruit, vegetables, grains or dairy, should not exceed 10% of total calories. No more than 5% is better. Always opt for a healthier form of sugar, one that has less impact on blood sugar. Agave nectar is a good, low glycemic sweetener. Honey—particularly raw honey—amasake, barley malt, brown rice syrup, and unsulfured blackstrap molasses are much better options than refined sugar, but be aware that you still don't want to overdo it. Adding good fiber will reduce the impact on your blood sugar as well. Sweetening with fruit is the best approach. Date sugar is simply ground up dried dates with plenty of fiber.