Using Food Labels to Help You Lose Weight: Expert Q&A
Should dieters also be concerned about fat in a product?
Yes, but not in the way most people think. Even though we’ve been trying to make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy fats for a long time, many people are still stuck on the idea that they should slash as much fat from their diet as possible. That’s a dangerous misconception. A meal should always include a healthy source of fat. Fat in a meal makes it more satisfying, both in terms of taste and in terms of how long it takes to digest. I don’t want people choosing zero, zero, zero.
I want them to choose foods with healthy fats. So if you’re treating yourself to chips, for example, the wisest choice is a package that has unsaturated oil in the ingredients. If you’re having a sandwich, add a few slices of avocado. For breakfast, I often add some walnuts to cereal. The walnuts add a little fat. They make the meal more satisfying. And I don’t get hungry again as soon as I would eating just a bowl of cereal.
We’ve touched on whole grains. Many foods now carry the Whole Grain Stamp on their labels. Is it helpful?
Very helpful. The Harvard Nurses' Health Study showed that women who ate more whole grains tended to weigh less than the women who rarely ate whole grains. The reason is probably what I mentioned before -- that whole grains take longer to digest, so they make a meal more satisfying. Whole grains are also much more nutritious than highly-refined grains. And when you’re dieting and cutting back on calories, you want to get the biggest bang for your calorie buck.
The Whole Grain Stamp makes it easy to see if a food is a good or excellent source of whole grains. If you’re choosing a bag of chips, the one with the stamp is going to be the healthiest choice.
Food manufacturers and groups like the American Heart Association are also putting their own “healthy-choice” labels on foods. Can that lead to confusion?
It’s important to know what criteria they’re using. One health label may indicate that the food is low in saturated fat, for example. That’s good. But if the food is full of refined sugar, that’s not so good. Again, I encourage people to think holistically. Look at the health claims on the front of the package, but verify them by looking at the ingredient list and the nutrition facts panel. According to federal regulations, for example, a food can call itself trans fat free if it contains 0.5 or less grams of trans fats per serving. The only way to know that a food is truly trans fat free is to look at the ingredients and make sure there are no partially hydrogenated oils listed there.