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Let the Numbers Be Your Guide to Wellness

Spending a few extra minutes at the grocery store can improve your health.

Standing in the cereal aisle with two boxes in hand, do you ever think “What do all these numbers really mean?”

Every day grocery shoppers are presented with food labels with a myriad of numbers and percents on them – and many just end up tossing their old stand-by brand into the cart rather than dealing with the confusion.

But reading and understanding labels is important to your health and that of your family, says Lisa Pranger, a registered dietician who works at the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at MidState Medical Center. Pranger takes the mystery out of reading food labels for patients in her individual and group counseling sessions. “I love what I do,” said Pranger, who deals primarily with bariatric patients and diabetics “The classes are fun and I get to meet all different kinds of people. People like to share information so I learn from them.” 

Pranger deconstructed labels for a group at the Wallingford Library recently at the end of June, telling audience members what certain terms and numbers mean and why they do make a difference.

A quick primer as provided by Pranger:

Calories are generally the first number people look at on a food label, but the information above the calories – serving size and servings per container – is the most important. All of the numbers that follow are based on one serving, which for some products is surprisingly small. If the serving size is one cup, and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the label.

The next item on a label is fat. “A rule of thumb we use is three grams of fat or less per serving,” said Pranger.

But the important item to take note of is the kind of fat listed. There are two types of fat; saturated, which is bad for the heart, and unsaturated. Saturated fat is mostly found in animal products such as meat, cheese, butter and cream. Unsaturated fat can be found in nuts and many vegetable oils.

An audience member then asked, “What is hydrogenated fat?” Pranger explained that hydrogenated means making fat more solid for the purpose of increasing its shelf life. Also called "trans fat," it increases the risk of heart disease and should be excluded from our diets.

Cholesterol comes next. Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, a person should consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a serving of food that has less than 20mg of cholesterol can be considered a low cholesterol food.

Sodium is the next nutrient listed on a food label. High levels of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. Pranger recommends no more than 2,100mg of sodium per day which translates into 200 to 400mg per food item. Chips and other snacks are easy to identify as high in sodium but Pranger warns that other foods such as canned soups and frozen meals are often high in sodium, making it important to carefully read the sodium on all food labels.

Total Carbohydrates, an important number for diabetics, is broken down into dietary fiber and sugars. Fiber is a nutrient found in whole grain breads, rice, some cereals, fruits and vegetables. Five grams or more of fiber in a serving is considered good. One benefit of high fiber foods is that they help you feel full for a longer period of time. Sugar, on the other hand will have the opposite effect. A breakfast high in sugar will leave you hungry long before lunchtime. One serving of food should contain 5 grams or less of sugar.

Of all the terms to keep track of, serving size, fats, cholesterol, sodium and carbohydrates are the most important numbers, Pranger said.

She also revealed these interesting facts:

  • Eating a large muffin from your favorite coffee shop equals the same number of carbohydrates as six slices of bread. A better choice is an English muffin.
  • Many bottles of Vitamin Water boast that they are only 50 calories but when you read the label, that 20 oz bottle contains 2.5 servings.
  • Some olive oils say ‘light’ on the label. All olive oils have the same grams of fat – the ‘light’ refers to the color and flavor of the oil.
  • The noodles in some “quick” soups, that you add water to – making them appear healthy- are actually fried prior to packaging.

The message is: Read the labels. Beware of foods that are high in fat, sodium and sugar and pay attention to serving size. It is wiser to take the few extra minutes at the grocery store than to spend time and money sitting in a doctor’s office.

Peggy Phillips, a 50-year-old mother of two who was at the Wallingford Library program, said after the event, “I mostly look at calories. Now I will be more conscious of sodium, saturated fats and trans fat.” She also said she would be more careful about reading the number of servings in a container.

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