Nutrition Facts Panel for Oatmeal Crisp cereal

I just finished teaching a one-day course on Nutrition and Weight Loss and it really got people thinking about the labels on their foods and how much information they actually contain.

Most of us know about The First 5 Things You Need to Read on Your Food Labels, but that’s as far as we go. If weight loss or maintenance is our concern, most of us aren’t interested in much more beyond the calories that we are taking in. However, if you read last week’s blog post you found out that calories weren’t the most important piece of information on the labels. You need to look at where your calories (energy) are coming from.

Today’s blog post is a continuation of last week’s. We are going to look a little deeper at what those numbers in the Nutrition Facts box on the food labels mean and what sources we should be getting them from.

  1. Types of fat:
    1. Saturated – The reason these fats are called ‘saturated’ is because the carbon backbone of the fatty acid is ‘saturated’ with hydrogen. These molecules get packed together pretty tightly so they are solid at room temperature (usually animal-based fats).

Diets with a high level of saturated fats increase the LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body and contribute to cardiovascular disease.

2. Trans – These fats are usually man-made. The original fat is an unsaturated (vegetable-based) fat that has been bombarded by hydrogen atoms. This changes their shape so that they, too, are able to get packed tightly together and are solid at room temperature. As with saturated fats, trans fats also increase LDL cholesterol and the risk for cardiovascular disease. However, because industrial trans fats (hydrogenated fats) are not found in nature, they are not processed well by the body.

There are naturally-occurring trans fats that the body tolerates well. These can be found in grass-fed ruminants (animals who chew their cud) such as cows, sheep and goats.

3. Monounsaturated – These fats have one double bond in their carbon backbone. This changes the shape of the fat so that not as many of them can fit in a small space and so they are generally liquid at room temperature. Oleic acid is a well-known monounsaturated fat, as it is the main fat in olive oil.

Substituting saturated or trans fats for monounsaturated fats can lead to a decreased risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease and reduced cholesterol levels.

4. Polyunsaturated – These fats have two double bonds in their carbon backbone. Again, this means that they are liquid at room temperature.

Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats lower cholesterol levels and are heart healthy, however, there are two types of polyunsaturated fats that do so much more! These are the essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6.

5. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) – These fats are considered to be essential because our bodies can’t produce them so it is essential that we get them from our diet. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both EFAs. Omega-6 fatty acids are pretty commonplace because they are found in lots of grain products and vegetable oils. Omega-3 fatty acids, however, are a little harder to obtain – especially if you don’t eat fish or are allergic to walnuts! They can be found in pretty high amounts in flax and chia seeds.

 An intake ratio of 1:3 omega-3:omega-6 is considered ideal.

In general, you want to minimize the saturated and trans fats in your foods and maximize the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, paying close attention to the omega-3 and omega-6 sources.

Unfortunately, only the total fat, trans fat and saturated fat are required to be on the label so you might not know the specific amounts of the healthy fats. That’s okay. If you subtract the amounts of trans and saturated fats from the total fat, the remainder is the amount of healthy fats in a serving of that product.

  1. Cholesterol: We all know that cholesterol will kill you, right? Wrong! Our bodies actually make their own cholesterol, just as all animal bodies do. That’s the problem – we make our own cholesterol and then, if we ingest animal products, we add to that cholesterol. It’s not a problem for most of us if we go slightly over the 300 mg RDA every now and then because our bodies can ‘clear’ the cholesterol quite well. Remember when it was recommended that we only eat two eggs a week? They have since changed that recommendation to say that you can eat an egg a day if you don’t have a cholesterol clearance issue. Yay!

We actually need cholesterol for things like hormones and cell membranes (rather important stuff). However, we don’t need to get it from animal products. Plants create their own sterols called phytosterols. What is so great about these is that these can actually take the place of cholesterol in the body without all the harmful effects and they decrease our own production of cholesterol. This gives us another great reason to eat more of a plant-based diet.

  1. Sodium: According to popular science, sodium is another substance that will kill you. And it will, if your body has a problem getting rid of it. Again, sodium is definitely something you need. It’s really hard to use your 5 senses without the sodium in your nerves, maintain water balance (osmotic pressure) without the sodium in your cells and even to uptake glucose without sodium in the gut. Most of us go over the 1500 mg of sodium that we should be taking in each day, but we wouldn’t if we ate less processed food and more fruits and vegetables. Not only do they contain less sodium, but they contain more potassium.
  1. Potassium: This mineral works with sodium in the nervous system and helps maintain blood pressure. As a matter of fact, a high potassium diet (usually found in a primarily plant-based diet) has been linked to lower blood pressure and thus, decreased risk of stroke. The ideal food intake would be low in sodium and high in potassium. Unfortunately, processed foods are high in sodium and low in potassium. A very good reason to avoid processed foods!
  1. Other micronutrients: A micronutrient is something that we need in small amounts. We still need them, though, and they are something that we don’t get much of in processed foods.

You may have heard of foods being ‘enriched’ or ‘fortified’. A food that has been enriched has been processed so much that the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) have been stripped from it and then re-added. The problem with the re-adding is that they are not added in the same amounts as what the original food contained so that may change the relative amounts in the body and the body’s ability to use them. A food that has been fortified never contained that nutrient to begin with. You know, like those boney oranges they grow in California. The ones with calcium in them? Just kidding! The fear of osteoporosis combined with the fear of hormones in dairy products have made some manufacturers turn to adding calcium to orange juice (fortifying it) because most people will drink orange juice (so far) and it is a great marketing ploy!

To find out the amount of each micronutrient you need for your sex and age, check this out:

As you can see, there is a lot more information in a Nutrition Facts box on your food label than you originally thought! And we haven’t even gotten to the ingredients yet…

What is the Nutrition Facts box of your favourite food saying to you?

*Throughout this post, I kept saying the word ‘processed.’ There are varying degrees of processing that food goes through. If it has been picked and washed or slaughtered and cleaned then the processing is minimal. The more steps that the food goes through to get to your table, the more processed the food is. Frozen foods are less processed than canned foods, which are less processed than boxed foods. To get the most out of your food, you want to be eating as little processed food as possible.

Leah Esplen, MSc (Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology) enjoys moving and eating well but is aware of the challenges that people (including her) face to do so. Her mission is to take the b.s. out of nutrition and fitness information to make it more ‘palatable.’ She believes anyone can make changes to improve their health, as long as they know the right changes to make. When not teaching in the BPK department at SFU, Leah can usually be found presenting at fitness conferences, teaching fitness instructors or teaching MommyMoves® PreNatal and Mom & Baby fitness classes. Amazingly, Leah is not perfect. She wrestles with chronic injury and finding the right combination of nutrition and physical activity to maintain her own health.

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