A lot of people are cutting back on carbohydrates. What help can food labels offer?
The total amount of carbohydrates is less important than the type. The healthiest forms are unrefined carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and other whole, unprocessed foods. (Limit less healthy carbs such as sugar, white rice, and regular breads and pastas.) It’s wise to look at a label to make sure it contains whole grains and plenty of fiber. Several studies have shown that people who eat plenty of whole grains have a lower risk of heart disease.
What about protein?
We know protein is important. The body needs it for many functions. Protein in a meal helps make it satisfying. That can help people maintain a healthy weight. But labels aren’t particularly useful, since most of the protein people consume is in foods that aren’t required to have nutrition panels, such as fish, meat, and poultry. Here you need to use some commonsense guidelines. The best sources of protein are unprocessed foods with the least saturated fat. That includes plant-based sources, such as nuts and beans, and fish and lean meat. A healthy diet should contain 60 to 120 grams of good quality protein a day.
Finally, food labels typically list levels of various vitamins. What should people look for?
The evidence linking certain vitamins to lower risk of heart disease isn’t very strong. We used to be excited about vitamin E and beta-carotene, for instance, which appeared to significantly lower heart disease risk. But more recent research hasn’t shown a strong link. Rather than worry about how much vitamin E or vitamin B a packaged food contains, I suggest eating an overall healthier diet, especially one that puts fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other plant-based foods in the middle of the plate. The strongest evidence for the role of diet and heart disease prevention, after all, comes from studies that look at the overall diet. And the healthiest diets are those that contain abundant fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, along with lean meats and fish.