Heart Smart Food Label Reading
There’s no better time to start reading food labels than this February, American Heart Month. One of the most important steps when eating for a healthy heart starts when you’re at the grocery store before you add foods to your cart. Reading food labels can be a bit tricky. With a few simple guidelines, you will know know what to look for and literally what to take to heart.
1. Serving Size. Start at the top and check out the serving size. This tells you how much of the product is in a single serving. All of the data that follows refers back to what is in that single serving. Beware of multiple servings in a package (see “servings per container” below), because you need to calculate the right amount according to how much you actually eat.
Heart Smart Tip: Pay attention to the serving size to keep your weight in check. Maintaining a healthy weight is going to help keep your blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar in a healthy range.
2. Servings per Container. You will find this right below the serving size. Just like it sounds, it’s the number of servings in the whole container. For example, if the serving size on a box of crackers is 10 pieces and you eat 20 pieces, double the data listed to account for the amount you eat.
Heart Smart Tip: If there are multiple servings in a package, it’s a good idea to stick with just one serving. This will help you better manage portions and weight. Take out the amount of one serving, put it on a small dish and immediately return the package to the fridge or pantry.
3. Calories. Check out the calories! This tells you, based on the serving size, how much the food counts toward your total daily calorie budget. Simply put, if you’re watching your waistline for peak heart health, then this number is worth counting. If you know the number of calories you need to achieve a healthy weight, then you can figure out how much you can eat of that specific food.
Heart Smart Tip: Calories are your body’s fuel source. Try spreading them out throughout the day for your best energy levels. Skipping meals usually leads to overcompensating by chowing down at other times of the day, particularly in the evening hours. Eating too many calories at any time of day and especially at night when you’re typically relaxing and more inclined to overeat, is counterproductive when you’re trying to watch your weight.
4. Total Fat. Look at the total grams of fat on food labels. The general recommendation for a heart healthy diet is about 30 percent of daily calories from fat.
Heart Smart Tip: A 2,000 calorie diet should contain no more than about 65 grams (g) of fat per day. To put this in perspective, if a single serving of food contains 30 g of total fat, this accounts for a big chunk, almost 50 percent of your daily allotted fat! You might want to reconsider your options.
5. Saturated Fat. This number is especially important for your heart. Saturated fat is one of the “ugly” fat sources in the diet. It drives up the LDL (bad) cholesterol, which clogs your arteries and increases your risk of heart disease. Offensive saturated fats are found in high fat dairy foods (whole milk, cheese, butter, cream-based foods and ice cream); high fat meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ribs; and oils found in coconut and palm kernel oil and products made with these ingredients.
Heart Smart Tip: Select low-fat and nonfat dairy products, such as fat-free milk, 1 percent milk, reduced-fat cheeses (with no more than 3 g saturated fat per serving), nonfat yogurt and low-fat frozen treats. Ban butter and go for liquid oil-based spreads instead. Choose meats that are low-fat with no more than 3 g of saturated fat per three ounce (oz.) serving. Avoid coconut milk, yogurt and frozen treats which are extremely loaded in saturated fat.
6. Trans Fat: If saturated fats are “ugly,” trans fats (a.k.a. hydrogenated fats) are “evil.” They are evil because not only do they raise your LDL cholesterol, they also lower your heart protective good HDL cholesterol. That’s a double whammy! Trans fats are artificial and were originally created to improve food texture and keep foods more shelf-stable. Common sources of trans fat include some margarines, cakes, biscuits, fried foods, sweets and many high fat dairy products. Note, many liquid oil-based margarines now contain no trans fat and therefore can be included in small amounts in a heart healthy diet. Try not to get any trans fat in your diet.
Heart Smart Tip: Look for the number “zero” on labels next to the trans fat. Beware: if one serving of a food lists 0 g of trans fat, it may still contain trace amounts. By law, a food company does not have to disclose any trans fats if a single serving contains no more than 0.5 g of trans fat. Read the “Ingredients” list at the bottom of the label and if one of the first ingredients is “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil,” then put that food back on the shelf. If you choose to occasionally eat foods containing trans or hydrogenated fats, then at the very least, consume just one serving.
7. Cholesterol. The American Heart Association deems that a general heart healthy diet should contain no more than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day. Foods containing the highest amounts of cholesterol are egg yolks, liver and other organ meats, and shrimp. Most meats, including lean meats, fish and poultry, high-fat cheese, butter and high-fat mayonnaise contain in the ball park of 35-90 g per serving. A “typical” serving is defined as 3 oz. of meat, 1 oz. of cheese, and 1 Tbsp. of either butter or mayonnaise.
Heart Smart Tip: Try not to consume the very high cholesterol containing foods very often and keep your daily animal protein intake from fish, chicken, turkey, lean pork and lean red meat to no more than about 4-8 oz. a day. The amount of protein you need per day should match your calorie needs.
8. Sodium. The current dietary guidelines recommend no more than 1,500-2,300 mg of sodium per day. Too much salt in the diet drives up blood pressure which can lead to heart disease. Some foods are shockingly high in sodium, even if they don’t taste “salty.” Don’t try to guess if there’s a lot of salt in your food, read the label. Common culprits of sodium are processed meats and cheeses, canned soups and vegetables, convenience foods, salted snacks, seasonings and condiments (soy sauce, bouillon cubes, pickles, bottled sauces and dressings, such as salad dressing, tomato sauce, mustard and ketchup). The list goes on – as much as 75 percent of the sodium found in the average American diet comes from processed foods, not the salt shaker.
Heart Smart Tip: Select snacks and side dishes with no more than 300 mg sodium per serving. Choose entrees with less than 600-800 mg sodium per serving. Compare similar foods and choose the ones with the least amount of sodium. Use salt-free seasonings, such as Mrs. Dash in place of all varieties of salt, including sea salt, which is no lower in sodium than table salt.
9. Dietary Fiber. Become a fan of fiber, if you’re not already. Fiber is famous for many of its redeeming qualities. The type of fiber that is credited for lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol is “soluble” fiber, found in oatmeal and oat bran dry cereals such as Cheerios, Kashi Heart to Heart and Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Cinnamon Oat Crunch. Soluble fiber is also known to help stabilize your blood sugar and reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. The other type of fiber, “insoluble” fiber, functions to help with digestion and satiety. A high fiber diet contains a wealth of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, nuts and seeds. Because fiber can help fill you up, it can help you consume fewer calories and lose weight. Aim for 20-35 g of fiber every day.
Heart Smart Tip: Get your daily dose of fiber with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen vegetables are another great option and are often more convenient. Select wholegrain products, such as brown rice, wholewheat or whole-oat cereals, wholegrain breads, pastas and other high fiber starches. Compare food labels to get the most fiber bang for your buck. As a general rule of thumb, pick out cereals with at least 5 g of fiber per serving and wholegrain breads, pastas and rice with at least 3 g of fiber per serving.
So the next time you head to the grocery store, take a few moments to check out the food labels. Once you’re equipped with the knowledge, it will take less time and effort to plan heart healthy meals for you and your family.