It’s Sunday afternoon, and I am grocery shopping. I am wandering the aisles, checking off items on my list and filling up my cart. I’m not taking any time to actually stop and look at what I am buying. Before I know it, my cart is full and not with just items on my list. There are healthy items in my cart but there are also many not so healthy selections. As I look down at my cart, I stop and think I really need to start looking at the nutrition labels of what I am buying.
By just taking a few seconds to scan the calorie count, I was surprised. Certain items that I thought were low in calories are actually loaded with sugar and sweeteners. Many foods had hidden ingredients I never thought would be in these foods adding to the calorie and fat counts. So how can you make sure that what you’re buying is the healthiest option? I have a few tips below to help you figure it out, so you can make the best choices for you and your family.
Read the nutrition label when shopping
The calorie count is near the top of the Nutrition Facts label. It’s important to remember that the calories listed here are only for one serving. The serving size is also at the top of the label and tells you how much one person should have for one serving.
Serving size counts
Make sure you look at the servings per container. This can be more than one. Let’s say you bought a box of macaroni and cheese with two servings and ate it all in one sitting. You’d have to double the calorie count to get your total number of calories.
Here’s a general guide to calories per serving:
- 40 calories is low
- 100 calories is moderate
- 400 calories or more is high
This guide is based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. If your daily diet has too many calories, you’re at higher risk for being overweight and obese.1
Some fact and fiction about “healthy” foods
Isn’t a bagel just a bagel? You might think a bagel or muffin for breakfast isn’t too bad. However, dietitians say the size of many bagels and muffins have doubled in recent years.2 That means more calories. Consider half a bagel or muffin – and go easy on the spread.
What about a salad? That’s healthy, right?
While lettuce is low in calories, topping it with fatty dressings, bacon bits and cheese can make the calorie count really add up.
Here are some ways to order a healthy salad:
- Pick and choose what you want in your salad. For example, you can ask to hold the cheese or bacon bits.
- Try healthier salad toppings like kidney beans, extra veggies, or lean protein like skinless chicken.
- Get the dressing on the side, choose light dressings, and “fork dip” instead of pouring it on.
If I have just one serving for dinner when I eat out, that’s OK?
Not necessarily. Portions served at restaurants can be two or three times larger than the standard serving size. One way to cut down on calories (and save money!) is to share a main course. Or eat half and save the rest for lunch the next day.
Watch what you drink.
It’s not just what you eat that can rack up the calories.
High-calorie common drinks can be substituted to cut your calorie intake.
If you usually drink a large coffee with cream and sugar (240 calories), try a small 10-ounce serving instead (120 calories). Instead of reaching for a cola when thirsty (230 calories), bottled or sparkling water has zero calories and will quench your thirst.
Don’t forget about sugar by any other names3
When you scan the ingredient list, are you only looking for “sugar”? If you’re not careful, you might miss a sweetener with just as many calories as sugar. Here’s what to watch for:
|· High-fructose corn syrup||· Fructose|
|· Fruit juice concentrate||· Dextrose|
|· Corn sweetener||· Lactose|
|· Corn syrup||· Maltose|
|· Honey||· Molasses|
|· Syrup||· Brown sugar|
|· Sucrose||· Sorbitol|
There’s an app for that, right?
If you’re eating out, you may not have access to the Nutrition Facts labels. No worries. If you have a smartphone, you can use an app to look up the calorie count of many foods. Just look for a “calorie counter” app.
Remember, it’s all about balance. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional hotdog at the baseball game, as long as the majority of your food and drink choices are healthy ones!
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label (November 2004).
2. WebMD, Hidden Calorie Countdown (December 2003).
3. New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, Hidden Calories in Drinks (October 2010).