How to Select Healthy Foods While Food Shopping…

by Erica on May 21, 2012

Hey blog peeps!  As many of you already know, I’m enrolled in eCornell’s Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition, and I’m currently taking “Principals in Practice,” the third and final class.  I just finished a lecture for my class titled “Label Reading,” and I wanted to share the highlights with you while it’s still fresh in my mind.  This was definitely one of the most useful, practical lectures yet.

The guest lecturer for this portion of our class was Jeff Novick, a Registered Dietician with 25+ years experience.  He taught us two rules and a few guidelines to follow when selecting food.  He also shared with us how food companies maneuver around the laws and mislabel foods regularly.  I’ll talk about the mislabeling of food in another blog post.  For now, we’ll focus on Jeff’s shopping tips…

We’ll start with Jeff’s two simple rules.  First, don’t ever believe the front of any product- regardless of what is says.  As an example, 1% milk has 24% fat and 2% milk has 34% fat. Who knew??? Well, thankfully, Jeff does.  How is this possible???  Well, as I just learned, the U.S. health guidelines recommend that we limit fat as a “percentage of calories,” while all of our packaged food list fat as a “percentage of weight.”  Confusing, I know.  (I’ll explain this in my future “mislabeling” post…)  Our second rule is to always read the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label.

And, now, onto the guidelines…  As usual, different people and organizations have varying views on what is ideal for our health.  As an example, the USDA and groups like the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend 30-35% of total calories come from fat, while people like Jeff and Dean Ornish recommend that 10-15% of total calories come from fat.  For the lecture, Jeff merged the two sides and recommended that we aim for 20% for packaged products.  He also suggested that we raise or lower that percentage as we prefer, based on our health.  I’m going to aim for 20% right now.

So, the first guideline Jeff shared was to only purchase packaged items that contain 20% or less calories from fat.  As an example, a 100 calorie pack item would need 20 calories or less from fat.  A 200 calorie item would need 40 calories or less from fat.

The second guideline also involves fat- we need to check the ingredient list and avoid bad fats.  These fats fall into three categories- saturated animal fats (dairy, cheese, butter, lard, and chicken fat), saturated vegetable fats (palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter), and man-made saturated vegetable fats (such as margarine, shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). Yes, he lists dairy, butter, and chicken fat as bad fats.  I know not everyone reading this is vegan or plant-based, or plans to be, but it’s good to avoid, or at least limit, these fats whenever we can.

The next guideline Jeff shared involves sodium.  If you’re in good health, most people need, at the very minimum, 250 milligrams of sodium daily.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends people up to age 50 consume no more than 1,500 milligrams daily, people ages 50 to 70 should limit it to 1,300 milligrams, and people ages 70 to 90 should limit it to 1,200 milligrams.  Apparently if you are over 90 years of age, you can eat however you want- something to look forward to!

The IOM also set an upper limit of daily sodium consumption at 2,300 milligrams.  They believe if you consume over 2,300 milligrams daily, you are harming your health.  Unfortunately, the average American consumes 3,000-5,000 milligrams of sodium daily, and only 10% of the sodium we consume is from what we add while cooking, or by sprinkling it on to our meals.  77% is from restaurant and processed foods we buy.

The third guideline involves using a salt to calorie ratio of 1:1, or less.  If an item has 220 calories, Jeff recommends not buying it if it has more than 220 milligrams of sodium.  If an item has 410 calories, he recommends not buying it if it has more than 410 milligrams of sodium.

Something you have to consider while looking at these numbers is the serving size.  The nutrition facts listed are per serving size.  If you think you’re going to eat two or three servings, then consider this when evaluating the numbers.

Now, we’re onto sugar, the fourth guideline.  First, sugar gets slammed an awful lot.  However, we need sugar, and it is one of our main sources of energy.  In fact, the average human brain burns approximately 500 calories of sugar daily.  The sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables isn’t typically a concern.  It’s the added sugars that are the problem for us.  Unfortunately, evaluating sugar in the nutrition facts is complicated, because the label lists total sugars, and we’re not interested in total sugars, we’re interested in added sugars.

So, this guideline requires us to look at the ingredient list.  Review the ingredient list for added sugars, such as honey, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, and dehydrated honey.  Jeff recommends that if you’re really worried about avoiding sugars, then avoid any added sugars.  But, at the minimum, make sure added sugars aren’t one of the first three to five ingredients listed.

And, last but not least, the final guideline involves carbs.  90% of the carbs Americans consume is white flour, white rice, white pasta, and white sugar.  All of these have been refined, are stripped of their nutrients, and are high in calories.  On the other hand, Americans consume, on average, less than one serving per day of unrefined whole grains- a good carb.

Jeff recommends that we review the ingredient list again, and look for the word “whole,” and it has to be spelled like that too.  Examples would be “whole grain” or “sprouted whole grain.”  In addition, words like “rolled,” “cracked,” or “stone-ground” also typically means whole grains. 

In summary, these are the rules and guidelines we should be following in order to purchase foods and meals that will enhance our health, and not harm it.  I know some of them are easy, and others require a little math.  I’m going to begin using them when I shop.  I suspect it won’t be easy right away, but I am hoping that after a few weeks, I’ll get the hang of it.  If you try them out, please comment to this post, or comment on my FaceBook page, and let me know how it goes!  If you’d like to learn more about Jeff Novick, his website is:

And, let’s not forget- good health is contagious, let’s pass it on! 

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