‘Don’t eat packaged foods’ is some of the worst advice I’ve heard.
Not only will you be missing out on some delicious meals and snacks…you’ll also be putting yourself under unnecessary stress by limiting the convenience level of your diet. Trust me when I say this…long term diet success DEPENDS on convenience.
This idea that packaged foods are bad for you stems from the ‘clean eating’ movement and that somehow foods can somehow be separated into ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods.
I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but just remember that there are very few foods that are inherently bad for us and there should be no moral implication attached to eating a food. You can consume ANY food you like without feeling guilty about it….you just have to learn how it can fit in with your goals.
This is where reading food labels comes in. While MyFitnessPal is useful, remember it’s just the Wikipedia for foods (i.e most data is entered by users) so it can be unreliable. Being able to read, interpret and utilise the information on food packaging yourself is absolutely essential in my opinion.
What information will you find on the packaging?
Name of the food (obvs) and it’s quantity (weight)
List of ingredients
The most prevalent ingredient always comes first, and then the list of ingredients will descend according to quantity included. The percentage of the food that the ingredient makes up is also normally shown.
‘USE BY’ date is given to foods which are highly perishable and may cause harm if consumed after that date.
‘BEST BEFORE’ date is given to other, less perishable foods which are generally better consumed before the best before date, but probably won’t cause harm if consumed after that date.
Allergen and intolerance warnings
By law, foods which contain ingredients which may cause allergic reactions have to be listed OR clearly defined by underlining or making bold.
For example gluten, eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, fish etc.
For a product to make certain claims about what it provides, it has to meet certain requirements…BUT it’s important to keep these in context and not read too much into the claims. A few examples:
NO ADDED SUGAR – means there was no sugar added during the production process, BUT it may have already contained sugar…for example a ‘Naked Smoothie, No Added Sugar’ contains 53g (10 teaspoons) of sugar
SOURCE OF PROTEIN – must have at least 12% of it’s calories provided by protein…for example a ‘Wonder Bread, a Source of Protein’ has 3g of protein per slice
HIGH IN PROTEIN – must have at least 20% of it’s calories provided by protein…for example Weetabix Protein provides only 7.6g of protein per 144kcal serving.
REDUCED FAT/SUGAR/SALT – reduction of named nutrient must be 30% less than a similar product but generally coincides with an increase in another nutrient. Low/reduced fat often means increased sugar and vice versa. ‘Low fat Walkers oven baked crisps’ only contain 8kcal less than ‘regular’ Walkers for example.
These claims can often be deceiving which is why it’s so important to be able to read and understand the nutritional information.
This is always shown per 100g/100ml and normally per portion. Where information is shown per portion, it will be declared how big that portion is (i.e what proportion of the package). THIS IS IMPORTANT!!
Here’s what you’ll find:
ENERGY – in both calories (kcal) and Kilojoules (KJ)
Saturated fat (g)
So how should you use this information?!
Here’s a quick, four step guide:
STEP 1 – Know your calories!
This is the most important step…How many calories are you aiming for per day?
Once you know how many calories you’re aiming for, you’ll have a better idea if this food fits your requirements…if you’re aiming for 1600kcal per day, and this food has 1000kcal per package, you’ll realise it’s not a sensible choice.
If you track your food, you’ll have an even better idea of how many calories you can afford to eat.
STEP 2 – Work out portion size
Now you know how many calories you can afford, you need to know how much you can eat!
So, confirm the portion size! Be careful here…sometimes it may SEEM as though the nutritional information is for the full package, but a lot of the time it isn’t.
Double check the total weight of the contents and cross check that with the portion size or the nutrition info per 100g/ml.
STEP 3 – Work out calories per portion/pack
Now you know how many portions are in the whole package, work out how many calories that equates to, and therefore what proportion you can eat.
STEP 4 – Check your macros!
If you have specific macronutrient goals in mind (hint…you probably should), then double check if this food is helping you towards your goal.
For example, if you have 200kcal left for the day, but your protein intake is 50g lower than it should be, check the protein content to see if it aligns with your goals.
And with that, you should have a better idea of how to read a food label and take control of your diet!