What Do Nutrition Facts Really Mean?

You are what you eat, as some people say, and that’s why self-awareness of the food we consume is key to living a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle. What we put into our bodies fuels us and helps determine how healthy we live. But in our current age of genetically modified organisms and chemically altered foods, many aspects of nutrition can be confusing and even alarming.

You want to be healthy, and eat well as much as you can, so it's only natural you'd want to know exactly what you're putting into your body. And nutrition labels are certainly not making it easy on any of us.  Overly complicated names you can’t pronounce on the back of your food package — with 13 syllables — may be perfect for your next Scrabble game, but who wants that in their food? (Not us!)

The idea of even knowing where to start this journey can feel overwhelming, so we thought we would rally some advice, tips and tricks from our friend, chef and nutritionist Nadia, from Nadia’s healthy Kitchen. Nadia herself started her nutritional journey to help unlock answers for medical issues when conventional medicine simply isn't working, it has since blossomed to Nadia sharing her knowledge and regular healthy, yet simple recipes using everyday ingredients that are easy to find.


Hey Nadia! With a family yourself, how do you ensure that you’re getting enough nutrition into the whole family’s diet? What are some easy ways for others to do this?



NADIA: My partner isn’t the biggest fan of vegetables and rarely adds vegetables when he’s cooking for himself. Sometimes it’s a bit tricky because I love my veggies and use them a lot in my cooking, but he resists adding them onto his plate and I don’t want to come across as if I’m forcing him to eat them. I have used the ‘hidden veg in sauces’ method where I blend things like cauliflower in white sauce and carrots/courgettes in tomato sauce to try to add extra vegetables. It can be a little faffy, especially if you’re low on time, so a veggie-based ready sauce will be such a time saver for so many.


Serving Sizes

This value can be very misleading if you're not quite sure what to look for. The serving size translates into the amount of that food that someone might eat at a single time. It's also directly related to the number of servings the entire package holds, and there may be a difference between a serving size and a portion size, as the popularity of eating out has distorted many people's perception of what constitutes a single portion.


If you’re accustomed to simply guessing at how much you eat (like most of us), instead of perceiving food in ounces or grams, or not even paying it a second thought at all, staying mindful of your portion size as it correlates to how much is in the box, bag, or package can help you stay on track.


Keep in mind that if you consume more than the amount listed, your total intake, including fats and calories, will be higher too. Smaller packages, like wholesome plant-based bars, are likely to contain a single serving, and you can finish them off with little to no guilt whatsoever.


Do you have any tips/tricks to help people monitor their serving sizes when cooking?

NADIA: A good rule of thumb is to follow the ‘healthy eating plate’ guide - make sure half of your plate is full of veggies/greens, a quarter is filled with wholegrains/complex carbohydrates and the other quarter is filled with protein rich foods. That way you’re getting everything you need in a balanced meal, which is more satiating and as a result you’re less likely to overeat.


If portions are an issue for you, avoid using large plates. Big plates trick the brain into thinking the portion on the plate is small, so subconsciously you may end up adding more than you need or want.


Calories

A calorie is a unit of measurement for the energy that a portion of food will impart. Calorie recommendations vary from person to person, based on a variety of factors. These include a person's general health, age, height, weight, lifestyle, and activity level.

Simply put, when you take in more calories than you burn, your weight is likely to increase. Conversely, if your calorie intake is less than what you burn (via exercise, walking, yoga, chasing your three-year-old, etc.), this creates a calorie deficit and sets the stage for weight loss.


This may be the spot on the food label that gets a lot of attention, but don't forget to look at the whole picture. A serving with 50 calories is low, while eating 400 calories per sitting is considered relatively high.


How important is it to track more granular aspects of nutrition tracking, for example calorie counting and portion sizes? What are some of the benefits or disadvantages?


NADIA: For most people, I don’t believe calorie counting is essential. Food and nutrition is so much more than just calories and I think focusing just on calories isn’t very helpful. It can even be harmful as it can turn into an obsession and trigger disordered eating for some. Also, not all calories are created equal. Your body won’t use up 100 calories from a chocolate bar the same way it would 100 calories from broccoli. They each have a different effect on the body, hormones and energy levels. I would rather people focus on the nutritional benefits of what they’re consuming rather than the calories.


However, there is a place for portion control if someone is overweight and is trying to lose weight. Focusing on wholefoods and well-rounded meals with a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat is a better way of approaching weight loss.


Percentage of Daily Values

These percentages give you an indication of how that particular food fits into your daily nutrient budget. It's your collection of indicators as to whether or not the food has a high percentage of fat or cholesterol, for example, based on a standard diet of 2,000 calories per day. Your personal nutrient needs will vary from that standard, so plan accordingly, but with these percentages, you can get a good idea whether or not this is a food you should consume. The amount of sodium, for example, might not mean anything at first, but when you see that it represents a major percentage of your daily intake, things become far more clear.


Is there something specific we should be looking out for on nutritional labels to easy identify foods to steer clear of?


NADIA: I would focus more on the ingredient list and would avoid any foods with sugar, glucose syrups or any syrups at the top of the ingredient list. The traffic light label isn’t always helpful. For example, sugars may be labeled red (high), but it doesn’t tell you if that’s added sugar or naturally occurring sugars from carbs/fruits. A pack of cheddar cheese will have a lot of reds on its label compared to a pack of rice cakes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one is healthier than the other. In general, you should be limiting the amount of foods you eat which are high in fats, saturated fats and added sugars.


Added Sugars

As with many of the good things in life, there are nutrients to love, and nutrients to limit. It is wise to limit added sugars, but do consider that all sugars are not created equal. A raw, organic, plant-based sweetener taken in moderation can definitely fit well into your healthy diet. And, a bit of natural sugar, like agave or date syrup, can sweeten things up nicely.


We know you love a plant based sweet treat – how do you ensure you balance the nutritional values in these?


NADIA: I love using oats as a base and healthy fats like nuts, seeds and nut butters. I do use sweeteners like dates and maple syrup, which are naturally high in sugar, but when incorporated into a recipe that’s also high in fibre and fats, it won’t spike blood sugar the way it would if those ingredients weren’t there.  Desserts are meant to be occasional treats. As long as your overall diet is balanced, a treat here and there won’t negatively impact your health and wellbeing.


Ingredients Lists

As a rule, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity used to make the product, so if the first ingredient is a vegetable, you know you've hit a jackpot of wholesome goodness. Fewer ingredients often indicate more wholesome food. If you need a magnifying glass to read it because of an excess of long names, watch out! Did you know our Yellow Pea Pasta is simply just one ingredient?! How cool is that!


Which nutrients should we all be ensuring are in our daily diets? And which ones should we be limiting?


NADIA: All macro (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are essential in varying amounts on a daily basis. Focus on ensuring your meals have a good source of complex carbohydrates, proteins (animal and/or plant) as well as essential fatty acids. A varied and colourful diet should ensure you get all your vitamins and mineral intakes for the day. Supplements have a place too – like a vitamin D supplement during the winter months and vitamin B12 if you’re vegan.

Heavily processed foods, simple carbohydrates, sugary food and foods high in saturated fats should be avoided or reduced as they don’t offer much in terms of nutrients.


Sometimes nutritional values can be so difficult to digest (no pun intended!) – what can you suggest to make them easier to understand?


NADIA: Nutrition labels can be confusing, but again it’s about more than just the numbers on the label. Checking the ingredient list is just as, if not more important. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the first ingredients on the list are the main ones used in the pack. For example, if you look at the list of ingredients on ZENB Gourmet Sauces you’ll notice that the first few ingredients are vegetables, olive oil and spices.


Fibre

Fibre is a type of carbohydrate, essentially the structural part of plant foods (e.g., fruits, veggies, grains) that your body cannot digest or break down. Unlike fats, proteins, or most carbohydrates that are broken down and absorbed by your body, fibre passes through the stomach, small intestine, and colon as waste.


Nadia has also helped explain the Importance of Fibre in another blog post - check it out!


What are the benefits of planning meals in advance to ensure that they meet the level of nutrients we require each day?


NADIA: As long as you eat a varied diet with lots of colours and follow the ‘healthy eating plate’ guide mentioned earlier, you should be meeting your daily nutrient intake. Using a tool like Cronometer will give you a more comprehensive breakdown of your diet (both macro and micro nutrient breakdown). That way you’ll be able to see what nutrients you’re generally not getting enough of.

Meal planning takes the stress out of healthy eating, but also reduces food waste, so it’s a win-win all round! I wouldn’t know what ingredients to pick up from the supermarket if I didn’t know what I was preparing for the week ahead.


Eating Well, Living Life

Beyond understanding the nutrition label itself, the best way to stay true to your nutrition goals is to stay active, drink plenty of water and eat a variety of colourful, whole foods. 

Other than your diet, how else do you ensure you and your family are living well and staying active?

NADIA: I focus quite heavily on sleep and ensuring me and my partner get 8-9 hours of restful sleep a night as it’s so crucial for all aspects of health. I’m lucky that we both love keeping active as we both find it positively impacts our mental health too. Something that I’ve struggled with over the years is making sure I have proper down time to relax and rejuvenate. Taking a break and having some ‘me time’ also does wonders for your health.

Lastly, what advice would you give someone looking to make mindful food choices?


  1. Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach, you’ll always be tempted by junk food with little nutritional value.
  2. If you don’t have unhealthy treats in your house, you won’t be tempted by them!
  3. Always have some chopped up/peeled fruit and vegetables in your fridge to grab when you’re feeling snacky. If you have prepped carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, fruit slices, etc. ready to go, you’re more likely to grab them.
  4. Batch cooking and freezing leftovers is the best way to plan meals and to make sure you have healthy meals ready for you on busy days.


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