Learning how to eat after getting into bad habits can be difficult. Food labels are often misleading, sometimes deliberately, and many foods have hidden fat and sugar that can make the kilos creep on.
When I was starting to improve my diet, it was essential to learn how to read labels accurately. Please note, though, these are guidelines, not rules, and aren’t meant to be prescriptive. There’s a lot more to a healthy diet than avoiding sugar and bad fats, and I am all for eating treats without guilt.
But if you’re trying to eat better, here’s a quick cheat sheet that may assist next time you’re in the supermarket aisles.
Per 100g: This column is useful for comparing similar products, and the “per serve” column is good if you want an idea of how many kilojoules you’ll eat. I tended to use the “per 100g” column more regularly as a general guideline.
Total fat: Aim to choose foods with less than 10g of fat per 100g. For dairy products, this will vary, but try to keep to less than 2g per 100g for milk and yogurt, and less than 15g per 100g for cheese.
Saturated fat: This is a type of fat that you need to watch out for, as too much of it can lead to heart disease and high cholesterol. For a healthy diet, try to avoid foods with more than 2g of saturated fat per 100g.
Sugar: Try to limit foods that have more than 15g of sugar per 100g. Note: even if a product says “no added sugar” on the label, it may still have high levels of natural sugar, so check the label anyway. And sugars can be listed under a number of different names such glucose, cane syrup, sucrose, maltodextrin, malt extract, barely malt syrup, corn sweetener, treacle, xylose, lactose, fructose syrup, corn syrup, dextrose and maltose
Kilojoules: Kilojoules are the metric equivalent of calories and are a measure of energy, and they are what you need to limit if you’re aiming for weight loss. If you’re eating more energy than you expend you’ll gain weight and vice versa.
Ingredients list: This lists the ingredients in descending order, according to weight in the product at the time of manufacture. This can be useful to check for any products that might cause allergies. Also, it can be a helpful reality check if you see that sugar is listed as the second ingredient on a “healthy” packet of muesli bars.
Sodium: Limit sodium as a general rule – suggestion is less than 400mg per 100g. Less is better.
And one more thing: Don’t get sucked in by labels. There are a variety of loopholes that food manufacturers can use to slap labels like “99% fat-free”, “Lite”, “low-fat” and “diet” on their products. Chances are the “97% fat-free” yogurt you’ve got in your hand is packed full of sugar to make up for it, and the “lite” ice cream is light in colour, and not much else. It’s much better to check the nutrition information yourself if you’re aiming to make an informed decision about what you eat.