Pantry Purge: Reading & Understanding Nutrition Labels
By: Alysia Pope
Alysia Pope is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Founder of PurelyPope and Host of The Purely Podcast, living in Los Angeles, CA. Alysia doesn't believe in resolutions or quick fixes, but rather that we should love ourselves and make ourselves our #1 priority year round. Her wellness philosophy all roots back to self love. Part of that is the belief that we can both love ourselves and want to better ourselves at the same time. In fact, constantly wanting to be your best self is the ultimate form of self love!
Do you ever go to a grocery store and instantly feel overwhelmed by the immense array of options available? I mean, who knew there needed to be 30 different bread or pasta options, right?! Not to mention the greenwashing and marketing claims that are now on pretty much ALL of the packaging, and many are unfortunately NOT backed up by research or science (like My Girl ;) )!!
Well, I’m here to (hopefully) remove that overwhelm and instill some confidence that you can bring along to your next grocery run! To start off, let’s learn what exactly we’re looking at when it comes to a nutrition label.
Nutritional Label Check:
- Serving Size: This isn’t a big focus for me, but rather a guide to show what exactly the nutrition label is based off of. I always like to teach my clients to eat intuitively and enjoy as much as feels good.
- Calories: This isn’t a huge focus either. I emphasize nourishment, nutrients and ingredients over calories, and that’s what I teach my clients to focus on as well.
- Nutrient Breakdown:
- What’s the deal with those percentages?! As a general rule of thumb, I like to think of the <5% as considered to be ‘low’ and >20% to be considered high. Depending on the item, we would either want this to be on the higher or lower side.
- Total Fat: Fat is amazing and an essential part of our diet!! I tell my clients to try to consume anywhere from 1-3tbsp of fat per meal. Total fat minus anything below it will be the total unsaturated fat (amazing fats like olive oil, avocado oil, etc.), the saturated and trans fat will be broken out underneath. We want to ideally stay away from trans fats as they can cause inflammation in the body and are in most cases super processed, while saturated fats are good in my book too - they’re things like grass fed butter, ghee and coconut oil.
- Sodium & Cholesterol: Have you ever heard a doctor tell someone they need MORE of these? ;) That being said, it’s great to keep these on the lower end of the %DV if possible.
- Carbohydrates: I love when the carbohydrates have some fiber in them - the more complex the carb the better, IMO. The fiber will help keep you full and balance your blood sugar.
- Sugar: The total sugar minus the added sugar will be any naturally occurring sugars in the food. Anything naturally occurring is A-OK in my book. For the added sugars, we want to try to keep that on the lower side of the %DV - it’s one of those sneaky things that’s in literally EVERYTHING these days.
- Beneficial vitamins & nutrients: I recommend getting annual blood work to see what you need - bio-individually (meaning: we all are unique and need different things!) If you’re deficient in a vitamin, I’d recommend supplementing it + adding in whole foods rich in that vitamin or nutrient.
- Ingredients: A few things to look at here…
- What is first on the label? Whatever comes first will be the bulk of the product, so make sure it’s a good one!
- Would I make this at home? AKA, how many ingredients are in here? If it’s a TON, the answer is, probably not!!
- Do I recognize the ingredients? Or does it look like they could all be a part of a science experiment? If you don’t recognize it, your body may not either.
- Finally, I look to see if there are inflammatory oils, sneaky sugars (syrups, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.), dyes, etc. All of these I try to stay away from.
Now that you’re a nutrition label-reading pro, here are some of my favorite brands that almost always check all of the above boxes. I like to call these ‘elevated options’:
Food Options To Favor:
- Bread: Base Culture, Bread Srsly, Food For Life Baking
- Crackers/Chips: Siete, Simple Mills, Lesser Evil
- Coffee Creamer: Laird SuperFood (the vanilla is sweetened with a touch of coconut sugar & it’s addicting!!)
- Non-Dairy Milks: Malk (the original unsweetened) & Elmhurst are amazing
- Pasta: Banza, Explore Cuisine, Tolerant Foods
- Sauces: Bitchin, Primal Kitchen, Rao’s, 365
- Sweeteners: Lakanto or Whole Earth Monk Fruit, Coconut Sugar, Maple Syrup, Honey (all amazing zero or low glycemic sweeteners)
On top of these items, I always recommend having some things up your sleeve for promoting good gut health too. Gut health is the center of our health, and affects everything from our digestion to our mood to our sleep! I opt for the My Girl's Digestive Enzymes (Eat Your Heart Out) before meals. It’s going to help you break down the food more efficiently, as well as absorb more of the nutrients from the food as well! I’m also a big fan of taking probiotics (Gut Goals is a great one) daily to ensure the gut is getting all the good bacteria, and finally You Go Girl to ensure things are staying moving if ya know what I mean!!
All of this being said, remember to think of the items in your pantry as things you can ADD to a meal. I’m all for a focus on whole, natural foods, which essentially means no label, you can grow it or kill it ;) as being a majority of your diet. I always coach my clients to have protein, fat and fiber-rich carbohydrates at each meal, and then ADD into that whatever else will make them feel full and satisfied. The quantities of these are all bio-individual (meaning they will vary because we are all unique and have different needs!)
To close out, remember that balance is KEY! If you’re enjoying something every day, such as your coffee creamer or bread, then you will most likely want to choose an ‘elevated’ option that will satisfy you but also make you feel amazing with top-notch ingredients. If it’s something you’re having on occasion, go all in + enjoy!! I personally always keep ‘eat your heart out’ nearby on occasions like these to help keep the bloating at bay ;), and give my digestion a little boost. At the end of the day, that’s our goal - to be healthy and well so that we can live life to the fullest and ENJOY, and food is a big part of that enjoyment!
**Please note, this article is not meant to treat, diagnose or prescribe. Consult your doctor or physician prior to making any major changes in your healthcare plan and diet.