Revolutionize your Diet: Turning Healthy Food Choices Into a Permanent Lifestyle Change
Part One: Food Labels
A good portion of my time with patients revolves around one primary topic: food. Everyone wants to know what diet is best. The short version of my answer is: diets are not one size fits all.
Tailoring a diet to a specific person entails taking many different things into account. Obviously the health condition for which they are seeking advice helps steer us in a specific direction. Another factor to take into account is what habits the patient is able and ready to change at this time. Transforming the way one eats is a process that does not happen overnight! Another aspect of customizing the diet to fit the needs of the patient is food allergy testing. Although there is no singular test that is perfect, investigating food allergens will often help us determine if there is a food or group of foods that may be contributing to chronic inflammation. This, in turn, may help us find causes of chronic pain, inability to lose weight, digestive issues, and mood problems, to name a few. Even allergies to pollen can be affected by avoiding our food allergies! When we do find food allergens or intolerances, removing them from the diet can be quite challenging. One of the most common mistakes I see patients make when transitioning to a diet free of allergens is shopping for a pre-packaged “gluten-free”, “dairy-free”, or “fill-in-the-blank-free” item. I often see people make the assumption that the term “gluten-free” automatically means the item is healthy. The food industry has certainly capitalized on these buzz words, fueling this misconception. Most of the time, this is not the case at all. In my opinion, any packaged food, allergen-free or not, is guilty until proven innocent. All packaged foods have to be processed to some degree. Although there are few absolutes when it comes to diet, eating as few processed foods as possible is always a good plan. However, packaged foods are extremely convenient and are helpful for patients while they are transitioning their diet. The following are a few pointers for reading food labels to ensure you are getting the healthiest version possible:
- Start with the list of ingredients. A quick glance will reveal how long of a list this is—the longer, the more suspect. Look for any ingredients you don’t recognize and cannot pronounce. Many of these will be artificial colors or preservatives or stabilizers.
- Manufacturers have to list the ingredients in a specific order, starting with the ingredient that is present in highest amounts. In order to avoid placing sugar as the first ingredient, manufacturers will list sugar under many different names, such as sucrose, fructose, glucose, honey, etc. This happens often in the case of breakfast cereals (yes, even gluten-free ones!).
- Step away from the package if you see any of the following: MSG (monosodium glutamate), any kind of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or any artificial sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, sucralose). By law, the nutrition facts on the label have to state if there are trans fats in a product. However, a huge loophole exists. If there is less than ½ gram of trans fats per serving, the FDA allows it to be listed as “zero trans fats”. However, if any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil is listed on the label, you know it does contain trans fats and it should be avoided.
- In the case of gluten-free items, don’t just look for the package to state it is gluten-free, and conversely, if the package does not specifically state it is gluten-free, it still might be. Obvious gluten-containing listings would be wheat, whole grain, rye, barley, malt, and spelt; less obvious gluten-containing ingredients include items such as brewer’s yeast, fillers, emulsifiers, seasonings, and vegetable protein. For a comprehensive list of hidden sources of gluten, visit celiac.com.
- When a food item is “free” of anything, it is often loaded with fat or sugar or both. Remember when “fat-free” was all the rage? These products did not help people lose weight because they contained more sugar to offset the lack of fat. Sometimes the real amount of sugar an item contains is often “hidden” by using a little trick called serving size. The nutrition label lists calories, fat, sugar, and protein not by what the package contains but by what a serving size contains. Often times there are multiple servings per package, thereby multiplying the calorie and sugar count by more than we would like!
This is a multipart series, Part Two coming soon.
Dr. Vanessa Fritz has studied both naturopathic and Chinese medicine. She practices in Lake Oswego, OR, just minutes from downtown Portland, and believes in treating each patient as a whole person—not a symptom.