There are a few things to consider when it comes to selecting foods in a supermarket, the list might seem long and laborious and picking up a pre-packed product may seem the most painless option for you at the time, but this isn't the way it has to be and i'll show you why. Well, if like many you tend to buy packaged foods, you should 1.) vary it a little 2.) opt for more fresh produce such as fresh fruit and veg, raw animal sources such as meats and cook them yourself, or 3.) make sure you read and understand the labels properly before aimlessly throwing it in your trolley/basket.
Start from the top and work your way down
Always start by looking at the serving size first of all, this is usually right at the top of the nutrition facts or ingredients list. Every bit of nutritional information that will follow is relative to this figure, it’s worth noting however that some labels (particularly supplements) state the serving size AND the amount per 100g too. So basically, if you eat more or less of the ‘serving size’ stated, then be sure to adjust the nutritional intake you ACTUALLY consumed accordingly.
Calories are usually quite high on the list of priorities for most people, and this figure can usually be found just below the serving size. This figure basically demonstrates the amount of energy the food delivers (from protein, carbs and fat) per serving.
Fat (Total fat, Saturated fat, Trans fat, Polyunsaturated fat)
People are at risk of paying too much attention to the individual macronutrients, when ultimately it does just come down to the calorific content of the diet in terms of weight management. However, fat (and particularly the type of fat) becomes of particular importance if you are at risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease whereby too much of a saturated fat may negatively effect cholesterol levels. Should you be looking at reducing cholesterol etc, a good place to start is checking that the total fat level on the label is less than 20g fat per 100g (NHS choices, 2013).
Interestingly, dietary cholesterol i.e. the cholesterol we consume through our diet has a minimal direct effect on our cholesterol levels. With this being said though, the current guidelines for a healthy adult is no more than 300mg of cholesterol per day, and for an adult with high cholesterol, no more than 200mg is recommended (Eberle, 2014).
Sodium is an ingredient that is vital to maintaining normal bodily functions, however if over consumed it can have deleterious effects on our bodies. One of the main ways sodium impacts our bodies is its role in blood pressure. If people are susceptible to high blood pressure, sodium can significantly increase blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. Current World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines state that one should aim to consume less than 2000mg of sodium (5g salt) a day. There is a significant imbalance between the average westerners sodium and potassium intake with sodium intakes being much higher than potassium.
Again, you may not wish to focus too heavily on individual macronutrients such as carbs, protein and fat if general health and wellbeing is the aim. However, there are a few things to consider when thinking about carbs….sugar! A nutrition label will breakdown the carb composition into complex carbs, sugars and dietary fibre, and as a rule of thumb you should generally try to choose foods that have a sugar content of 10g or less per serving.
Eberle, S, G. (2014). Endurance Sports Nutrition. Fuel your body for optimal performance. 3rd Ed. IL: Human Kinetics.