I’m pissed off.

Over the past few weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with an attitude sometimes found within the health and wellness industry.

The attitude is that good health is something you need to pay dearly for. Yes, trainers and nutritionists need to make a living. But I would hope that they charge for their expertise in personalized plans and assessments. Not general information that should be common knowledge.

Yes, you may need to invest money in the form of higher quality foods and possibly some training gear. But although we live in a “rich” North American city, there ARE people living in poverty. Not everyone can afford groceries, much less a personal trainer or nutritionist. So careful with the assumptions that everyone visits Starbucks on a daily basis and spends a mini fortune on hair and makeup. Not everybody does.

In this spirit, I have decided to tackle what is probably one of the most confusing mysteries to the everyday grocery shopper: The Nutrition Label.

In Canada, our standard nutrition label did not become mandatory for most prepackaged food products until December 2005. Smaller businesses were given until December 2007.

However, most people feel like they need a degree in order to understand these labels. They’re tricky and can be misleading. Here are some basic tips that you can implement into your food shopping right away without having to pull out a calculator or go back to school.

THE MAIN COMPONENTS TO LOOK FOR IN A LABEL

1. The serving size. Make sure you’re comparing foods with the same portion sizes. If necessary, make a rough conversion in your head. Some food products will give you the breakdown of the entire bag. Others only break down one cup, or half a cup. You want to be comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges, so to speak.

2. The Calories. A calorie is a unit of energy. Besides the calorie itself, we need to be concerned about where that calorie is coming from. If we’re filing up on empty calories void of the nutrients that our body needs to function, there’s no point in eating. A lot of people don’t read beyond the number of calories. We always should.

4. Calories from Carbohydrates. This isn’t on the label, but you can get it by multiplying the total grams of carbohydrates by four. This is the breakdown:

1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories

1 gram of protein = 4 calories

1 gram of fat = 9 calories

Note that the number of calories you get from carbs and protein are actually the same. The reason carbs have gotten a bad name is that an excess of carbohydrates will be stored in your body as fat. An excess of protein, however, will have different complications. Too much protein can strain the kidneys and throw off the acid/alkaline balance in our bodies. But calories from carbohydrates are important for those trying to lose weight. These are calories that will become fat unless they are burned.

5. Calories from fat. This is listed next to the total number of calories. Not all fat is bad. Comparing the calories from fat with the total calories will tell you what percentage of the food is actually fat. I hope that at this point we’re comparing two food products that we believe to be healthy, and not one bag of chips to another bag of chips.

Watch out for the “Low Fat” or “Fat Free” claim. This usually means that fat has been replaced with extra sugar. Check the label. Extra sugar will become fat in your body anyway. Never mind that people tend to eat more if they think it’s “low fat.”

6. Protein. The amount of protein you need varies depending on your personal activity level and state of health. It is usually less than we think, and roughly works out to 60 grams a day (approx 45 for women and around 70 for men). Again, it varies if we’re recovering from an illness, exercising/bodybuilding, or pregnant. Excess protein can lead to fatigue, hypoglycemia, and long-term metabolic disorders.

7. Sodium. There is absolutely no physiological reason for us to ever add salt to our food. Processed foods are extremely high in sodium content. Our body requires about 1 gram of sodium a day. A typical North American diet will have us consuming about 15. If we are eating a wholesome, healthy diet full of natural foods, we will automatically get the sodium we need from fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid extra sodium. At the very least, substitute sea salt for white table salt.

8. Sugar. Ideally, we should get all our natural sugars from fresh fruit. You’ll find that almost everything has added sugar. Sugar is a simple carb that will convert to fat. If you’re reading a list of ingredients, anything that ends in “ose” is a sugar. Sucrose. Fructose. Maltose. Dextose.

Zero calorie sweeteners like Equal or NutraSweet are Aspartames. Aspartame was sold as a fertilizer for food crops until the FDA approved it for inclusion on its GRAS list in 1982. GRAS stands for Generally Recognized As Safe. That’s right, GENERALLY. At least until we know better. Some items that were previously on this list have since been deemed unsafe, so consider it a “better sorry than safe” list.

Aspartame has been associated with migraine headaches, seizures in children with epilepsy, and an increased risk of brain tumors in animals. The concern is that it contains aspartamic acid, a primary nerve stimulator in our nervous system.

Splenda is a little bit different. It’s not an aspartame but a sucralose (chlorinated sugar). The claim is that sucralose is easier to tolerate in our system. It was approved by the FDA as a tabletop sweetener in 1998, and Splenda was born. Splenda is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Aspartames are about 200 times sweeter.

I wish I could tell you more about these kinds of sweeteners. The bottom line is that they are too new for us to really know what the long-term effects on our bodies might be. So if you feel like being a guinea pig, here’s your big chance.

THERE’S MORE…

  • I have a few more basic grocery shopping tips that I haven’t seen in other food articles. I’ll post them tomorrow, then I’ll get back to some running/training info and updates.
  • I completed my first nutrition course! I absolutely loved it. My next class: anatomy and physiology.
  • You have exactly one hour from now to enter my Nikon Giveaway! The contest closes at midnight EST. Good luck everyone!