Read Food Labels for Better Health

Maintaining good nutrition while on the road for long periods of time is a challenge that can be met with the proper information and planning. While many agree that the most nutritious foods are found in the unpackaged form of whole fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-packaged foods are sometimes chosen simply for the sake of convenience. Knowledge about the nutritional clues located on packaged food labels can help one distinguish healthier food choice options.

When consuming processed foods, it is nearly impossible to accurately determine the meal's contents without reading the nutritional label. Four major items to look for when reading nutritional labels are sodium, sugar, fat, and vitamin counts.

Sodium is a necessary mineral for all bodily functions, but excess sodium levels can cause a host of health ailments such as high blood pressure and kidney disease. The daily recommended allowance for adults under 50 years of age is roughly 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day and the allowance drops to 1,500 mg per day for those over 50 years of age. Most people consume much more than this amount per day. One way to reduce sodium intake when choosing packaged foods is to choose only “low sodium” foods; these foods are defined as foods that contain less than 140mg of sodium per serving.

Sugar is also healthy in moderation because brain cells are fueled by glucose. However, it is a deadly enemy in excess amounts. Those who are diabetic, pre- diabetic, or lead sedentary lifestyles are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of excessive sugar consumption. There are no official recommended daily allowances for sugar. The general rule is “the lower the sugar grams, the better.” Try to avoid processed sugar such as high fructose corn syrup because it comes in a form that is harder for human bodies to process. Sugar sources should ideally come from natural whole food sources like fruit.

The fat in foods often makes one feel more satisfied, but it is an element of the diet that must be carefully monitored. The daily recommended allowance for fat in foods is between 55 to 75 grams of fat per day based upon one's overall caloric intake. All fats are not created equal. Trans fats, which are lab engineered concoctions, should not be consumed at all. Packaged foods containing ingredients listing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils indicate the presence of trans fats and are better left on the shelf. Ideally fats consumed in the diet should come from healthier, plant based sources.

Generally located toward the bottom of the nutritional label is the section showing the percentage of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins that are present in the food. Vitamins provide necessary nutritional substances needed for all bodily processes. Usually vitamins are found in fruit, vegetable, egg, and dairy sources. If the package food's ingredients contain any of those sources, then one may see corresponding percentages of vitamins present. One should choose these types of packaged foods over packaged items that contain no listed vitamin percentages or contain synthetic vitamins from fortified sources.

One should be suspicious of packaged foods that contain a lot of hard to pronounce ingredients. These ingredients often represent chemicals that the manufacturers use to enhance flavor or preserve their products for long periods of time. Common chemical additives to avoid are propylene glycol, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and monosodium glutamate. These additives have been linked hormonal disturbances and cancer. Chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates may also leach into foods from plastic and can packaging so it is a good idea to limit consumption of foods packaged using these packaging methods.

The healthiest food options remain whole foods found in their freshest state. When on a tight schedule, a variety of healthy foods may be found at most convenience stores. A few of those foods, which do not require immediate refrigeration, are listed here.

  • Whole fresh fruit
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit

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