Learning about the ingredients in the food we were eating became a priority for our family after my husband had a heart attack at the age of 45. Reading the information on nutrition facts labels and ingredient labels can be confusing.
I am sharing what I discovered about the ingredients in the food we were eating and what to look for when reading nutrition facts labels and ingredient labels.
“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 started screaming.
Needless to say, I was quickly escorted out of the room, and 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 about the ingredients in the food we were eating, 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 facts 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.
If people are trying to reduce their sodium intake a common practice is to reduce or eliminate the salt they use to season their food. However, most of our sodium intake comes from processed foods such as canned soups and frozen “healthy” meals. Our bodies need salt and the elements in natural salt.
Table salt is heavily processed and many of its beneficial compounds are lost. Sea salt and pink Himalayan salt come in their natural form and contain elements our bodies need. We have stopped purchasing highly processed food and use sea salt or pink Himalayan salt to season our food.
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 would find in my fridge before the heart attack. I NEVER looked at the ingredient label, but I sure did pay attention to the calories and fat grams. I truly believed if something said low-fat it was healthier.
Turns out when fat is removed, other additives like salt and sugar are used to replace the flavor lost from the fat. Healthy fats are not the enemy. They help to burn unhealthy fats in your body.
Fast forward several years, and you will never find me looking at fat or calories, only ingredients. When you look in my fridge now you won’t find anything that says fat-free or low fat. You will find full-fat sour cream and yogurt. I ditched the regular mayo altogether because it contained refined oil, sugar, and other unwanted ingredients. I now occasionally use avocado mayo.
3. Food Labels – What Should I Be Reading?
As I mentioned above, I mostly looked at the fat and calories on nutrition facts labels. I never read the ingredient label often listed separately than the nutrition facts. I was clueless.
I discovered that 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.
When I started paying attention to ingredient labels rather than nutrition facts labels I was shocked at all of the garbage I was feeding my family. I used to spend time looking up all of the unpronounceable words on labels to find out what they were and if they were harmful. The truth is most of the items that have a long list of ingredients should not be in our diet anyway. We now purchase products that list simple ingredients that 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 not the healthiest choices 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. We also use ghee and grass-fed butter.
Update: A whole post on oils! 🙂 The Power and Potency of Refined Oils
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! I look for bread that lists whole wheat as the first ingredient and doesn’t have novel after that.
Good sandwich bread with just a few whole ingredients is hard to find. For the most part, I don’t eat too much sandwich bread since I ditched the turkey sandwich I was eating every day.
We have a Great Harvest Bread nearby that sells fresh bread with just a few wholesome ingredients that I occasionally purchase. I also purchase or make whole wheat pita bread. Well, I don’t actually make the pita bread Tom does. 😉
You can read more about what to look for when purchasing grains in this Whole Grains VS Refined Grains post.
7. Syrup – Aunt Jemima Ain’t Syrup!
I’ve never eaten a lot of syrup, but my kids like it. When I started reading ingredient labels, imagine my surprise when I read this on the syrup in our pantry: Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Cellulose Gum, Caramel Color, Salt, Sodium Benzoate And Sorbic Acid (Preservatives), Artificial And Natural Flavors, Sodium Hexametaphosphate.
Umm, I thought I was buying syrup, like from a tree. Now our syrup label says Pure Organic Maple Syrup.
I now use syrup and raw honey as sweeteners instead of white sugar. They are both sugars but are not highly processed and unlike white sugar, they do have a small amount of nutritional value. I still treat them like sugar and only use them in small amounts.
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 ingredient label. I don’t buy it at all anymore. It’s so easy to make your own with healthy ingredients! This balsamic vinaigrette is my favorite!
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 soooo 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. You can read more about the things I’ve learned in My Journey To Clean Eating post.
I hope this post helps you to make informed choices when purchasing packaged food. If you found this helpful, please share it with your friends and family.