One of the things that we know here at HOPE Healthcare Services is that everyone really does want to be healthy. But there is always so much to think about, isn’t there? If it’s not medicines, it’s exercise – and don’t even get us going on diet. There are so many different approaches to what we should – and shouldn’t – be eating. Right?

Well, one of the easiest ways to really figure out if you are eating the healthiest you can is to start reading the nutrition labels on every package of food you put in your grocery cart. Not all at once. If you did that you would be in the grocery store for a week – and who has time for that?

No, do a little bit at a time. Start by looking at those foods you buy every week. Take in what you are actually putting in your body on a regular basis, week after week. The cereal, the snacks, the frozen meals, or canned goods. Even mustard, ketchup, and salad dressing has a nutrition label on it.

Bear in mind that the appearance of a nutrition label can change from time-to-time. But at this moment in time, the labels are consistent, and the following will give you several sections to pay close attention to as you wind your way through the grocery store. Every processed food must include a nutrition label. Raw foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meats will not have nutrition labels. If you want to know which of these are best for you and your family, you will have to do more research on the nutritional value of each of them.

In the meantime, here is a little explanation of what you will find, and what you should look for, when you turn that package over and starting ready. Brace yourself. You might be surprised at what you find.

What to look for on a nutritional label:

Serving Size– In America, our portions are not just larger than what the rest of the world eats, but larger than what food makers and nutritionists identify for foods. While you might think that a standard size can of soup is good for one meal, it might actually contain two or more servings according to the nutrition label. If your portion is larger than suggested, be sure to multiply the nutritional values accordingly! In addition, if your single portion is really 3 servings according to the nutritional label, you might consider reducing the size of your portion. Portion control is one of the most significant tools in weight loss programs.

Calories – Counting calories is not exactly what most people would call fun. It’s even less fun when you are eating high-calorie, low quality foods. Generally, most daily value percentages are based on a daily average caloric intake of 2,000 calories. Eating quality calories will mean you are getting more benefit from each calorie you ingest, and it generally means you will have a larger quantity of food to each. The simple number of calories doesn’t tell the entire story, it’s the quality of the food that makes the calories count. For instance, compare these calorie counts:

1 small pkg. McDonald’s French fries     229 calories

1 cup cottage cheese                                         205 calories

1 entire 8.25” cucumber                                 45 calories

3 oz. tuna (water packed), canned            73 calories

Total Fat and Cholesterol– You are probably aware of all the different kinds of fats and understand that some are acceptable, and some should be avoided. For instance, you want to reduce, or avoid, saturated fats and trans fats. Those are the two that are not good for your body. Fats impact caloric values, so it should come as no surprise that high-calorie foods are often also high-fat foods. The kinds of fats that are better for you are the polyunsaturated fat and monosaturated fats. It’s a good idea, for your heart and vascular system, to control the amount of cholesterol you ingest.

Carbohydrates– First, it is important to know that carbs DO play an important part in the function of the human body. And, just like fats and calories, it is important to choose carbs that are high-quality and the best kind. With that in mind, carbs that are also high in fiber are better for you. Fiber is your friend, not only does it help you to feel full and satisfy your appetite, fiber also helps to flush out your digestive system and keep you “regular,” if you know what I mean.

Carbs are foods that break down in the body into sugar and energy. And sugars are not created equal. Some are easier for your body to breakdown and turn into longer-acting energy. Others, like refined sugar, corn syrup, high fructose syrups, and the like can give you a big boost of energy, but then fall off quickly leaving you feeling depleted and sluggish. These are often difficult for your body to digest. In addition, foods with more added sugars are providing empty calories that increase your daily caloric intake and provide little, if any, nutrition.

Food labels now indicate total sugars and added sugars. It easy to see that added sugars add to the total calories and decrease the likelihood that what you are eating is a high-quality calorie food.

Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals– Doctors often suggest that with a good, balanced diet of high-quality foods, people can get most all the nutrients their body needs to function. But if you really start keeping track of the number of, and quality of, the calories the average person takes in, you will see that the good, balanced diet doctors talk about isn’t necessarily what we are accustomed to eating. If you are interested in reviewing the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals and other food elements, go to the United States Department of Agriculture website. It is this information that the percentages noted for vitamins and minerals are based on for labeling purposes.

A special note about sodium, which you can think of essentially, as salt. Most experts recommend keeping sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day. Many processed foods are high in sodium. Salt has been used as a preservative for the ages, and as a taste-enhancer for just as long. And again, while sodium is important for good health, too much can be hard on the body.

Look at the percentage of DAILY VALUE included on a nutrition label

When a label indicates that the product (one serving) has 470mg of sodium, it’s hard to know if that is acceptable or not. But when you see that the one serving of the food being scrutinized is 20% of the amount of sodium a person should consume for an entire day, you might think that perhaps this product is not a particularly good choice for you. When you are looking at how much fat, sodium, cholesterol and sugar, a rule of thumb some use is that 5% or less of the Daily Value is low, 20% or more is high. That should help you make good decisions.

Good decisions for the best health in life

Reading every nutritional label gets easier and easier once you have an idea of what is best for yourself in particular. If you have certain medical conditions, your doctor will suggest what you should limit in your diet. If you want to avoid certain medical issues, do the research to find out what you should avoid.

Everyone must eat. That’s a rule for every human on the planet. But what you eat can improve your health, or negatively impact your health. Eating healthy is just one part of healthy living. Doctors play a big role in helping you maintain good health. Seeing a doctor on a regular basis is important so you can create a baseline. This makes it possible to see when things are changing, or issues arise that need to be addressed, before they become major problems. Early detection is often the key to preventing major health issues later.

Even if you don’t have health insurance, we are making sure that affordable healthcare is available in Hendricks County through the Community Care program at HOPE Healthcare Services in Avon. Contact HOPE at 317-272-0708 for more information about the services available. Staying on top of your health means taking action – seeing a doctor and keeping an eye on food labels. Every little thing adds up to better health and longer life.

Disclaimer: The information included in this article is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.