Learning about nutrition and reading nutrition labels became a priority for our family after my husband had a heart attack at the age of 45. “You are having a heart attack right now!” Imagine hearing those words from an ER doctor after bringing your 45- year-old husband to the hospital in the middle of the night. Being the calm wife that I am, I immediately starting screaming.
Needless to say, I was quickly escorted out of the room, and so our wake up call began. Once my husband was out of intensive care, I started searching Google for Heart Healthy Diets, ordered several cookbooks, and dug into all the information I could get my hands on about nutrition.
Navigating all of the information out there is overwhelming, especially when you’re dealing with a life-changing medical situation. I want to share the top 10 things I learned through my research, and some of the changes we made to live a healthier lifestyle.
1. Sodium – How Much Is Too Much?
One of the first things the nutritionist in the hospital talked to us about was salt: something I was just starting to hear more and more about, but hadn’t yet bothered to research. So, how much is TOO much. When you read a nutrition label, 140 mg of sodium or less per serving is considered low sodium.
Daily sodium intake should be no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, but ideally adults with hypertension should keep it at or below 1,500 mg per day. 1 teaspoon of salt = 2,300 mg of sodium.
Our bodies need less than 500 mg per day. Most of our sodium intake comes from processed foods, not table salt. In our cooking, we now use sea salt or pink Himalayan salt.
2. Low-Fat vs Full-Fat – Which Is Better?
Low-fat or fat-free sour cream, mayo and yogurt were a few of the items you could find in my fridge before the heart attack. I NEVER looked at the ingredients on a label, but I sure did pay attention to the calories and fat grams.
Fast forward four years, and you will never find me looking at fat or calories, only ingredients. Turns out when fat is removed, other additives like salt and sugar are used to replace the flavor lost from the fat. When you look in my fridge now you won’t find any mayo, but you will find full-fat sour cream and Greek yogurt.
3. Ingredients On Food Labels – What Should I Be Reading?
As mentioned above, I mostly looked at fat and calories, not at the ingredients, let alone the order in which they are listed. I never knew the order mattered, but (as you probably already figured out), I was clueless.
Ingredients on food labels are listed in order of quantity. So if sugar is listed first, then there is more sugar than any other ingredient in that product. I was shocked when I found out what some of those big words listed in the ingredients were, and how sugar is disguised as so many different words.
Who knew? Not me! If I don’t know or recognize an ingredient on a label, I either look it up on the spot, or put that product right back on the shelf. We try to stick to products that list simple ingredients we can find in our kitchen.
4. Cooking Oils – Is Olive Oil the Only Good Oil?
We mostly used olive oil before I started all my research about nutrition. I knew vegetable oil and canola oil were no good for you, but didn’t know anything beyond that. I could probably do a whole post on oils, but for now I’ll keep it short.
Canola oil, corn oil, and vegetable oil, along with several others, are refined. Refined oils are extracted using heat and a solvent. The oil is then bleached and deodorized. Sounds yummy! NOT.
We try to stick to unrefined oils, which are cold-pressed, without heat or chemicals. Aside from olive oil, a few other unrefined oils include coconut, avocado and sesame.
5. Lunch Meat Is Crap!
Short and simple, most lunch meat is loaded with sodium and preservatives. I used to eat a turkey sandwich with low fat mayo on whole wheat bread almost every day for lunch. Not anymore! Lunch for me is usually leftover dinner. (A post on how we do our weekly food prep is coming soon!)
6.Whole Wheat Bread – It Says Whole Wheat So It Is Good For Me, Right?
Remember when I said I never looked at ingredients. Pull out the loaf of bread you have in your pantry right now, and look at the ingredients. Crazy!
Good sandwich bread with just a few whole ingredients is hard to find. For the most part, I don’t eat sandwich bread anymore. We have a Great Harvest Bread nearby that sells fresh bread with just a few wholesome ingredients that I occasionally purchase. I also use whole wheat pita bread.
7. Syrup – Aunt Jemima Ain’t Syrup!
I do not use a whole lot of syrup, but my kids like it. So I when I started reading labels, imagine my surprise when I read this: Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Cellulose Gum, Caramel Color, Salt, Sodium Benzoate And Sorbic Acid (Preservatives), Artificial And Natural Flavors, Sodium Hexametaphoshate.
Umm, I thought I was buying syrup, like from a tree. Now my syrup label says: Pure Organic Maple Syrup.
8. Salad Dressing – How Bad Can It Be?
Take a look at the inside door of your fridge and pull out a bottle of dressing. You know what I’m going to tell you to do…read the label. I don’t buy it at all anymore. It’s so easy to make your own with healthy ingredients! (Pinterest is a treasure trove of make-your-own salad dressing recipes, and I’ll share my favorite with you soon!)
9. Ditch The Box Mix
Cake mixes, boxed macaroni and cheese, jarred pasta sauce, etc., etc. These items were never a staple when I was growing up. My parents made everything from scratch, but at some point I started buying them, and I honestly don’t know why.
Maybe because it seemed so much faster and more convenient when I had three kids to cart around and feed while my husband was at work. Let’s face it, we live in a world where we like everything to be quick and easy, and making things from scratch doesn’t fit that description.
Or so I thought! Once I started doing things the “old fashioned” way again, I quickly learned that it really doesn’t take that much longer to make a cake, brownies, cookies, or even pasta sauce from scratch. No extra additives, AND everything tastes sooo much better!
10. Organic Doesn’t = Healthy
After I started reading labels and discovering what was actually in the food I was purchasing, I decided to start buying more organic products. I quickly found that just because it says organic, DOES NOT mean it is healthy.
Many organic products are still packed with preservatives and unnecessary ingredients. And depending on the label, not all of the ingredients are even organic. Don’t let the word organic fool you!
My husband had his heart attack in 2013. Our pantry looks quite a bit different now than it did back then. We definitely didn’t make the changes listed above overnight. In fact, as I continue to educate myself about nutrition, we continue to implement the things we learn into living a healthier lifestyle.
Do you read nutrition labels? If so, what do you look for? I’d love to hear from you!