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How to decode food labels and grocery shop like a nutritionist

Do you ever pick up a new product at the grocery store, look at the ingredient list and wonder where to start? Or do you just read the front of the packet, notice that it mentions “minimally processed” so surely it must be good, right?

The sad reality is that there are very loose rules and regulations regarding food labels. So that new cereal bar that said “whole grain, minimally processed” might contain whole grains, but is still loaded with carbs and sugars and likely has as much nutrition as a Snickers bar. >>> need to kick your sugar cravings? Click here to sign up for my free 3 day Ditch the Sugar challenge!<<<

Labels are marketed to grab your attention, not to be truthful. They use enticing words to make you believe the product will be in line with your nutrition goals, fooling us all into thinking it’s something good for us. Marketing is a game and skill of determining what to say to make you buy their product over someone else’s.

Now all of us like to have some “easy” snacks at home or to grab and go. Raise your hand if you also keep a granola bar or 2 stuffed in the bag for “emergency” hangry moments! Not all packaged foods are evil, so knowing how to decode what a product really is and does allows us the freedom and control to make smart let’s dive into finding out what the packaging is really telling us, and how we can utilize the information to help us stay in line with our, and our family’s goals.

Don’t be fooled

Wherever you are shopping, whether it is at the grocery store or an online ordering site like Thrive Market or Instacart,, be conscious of your choices. Some of the sneaky buzz words to pay attention to include: whole wheat, natural, no high fructose corn syrup, and cage free.

Coach Erica Shulse, the holistic nutritionist of the Strong as a Mother coaching team, encourages us to read the label, turn it over and check out the list of ingredients. Are they ingredients you recognize? Is it real food listed? Or is it ingredients that you can’t even begin to other words...crap!

The old buzzword used to be “fat-free”, which most of us now realize includes products that are laden with sugars, aka carbs!

As a fitness coach, I’ll be the first to tell you you can have your pizza, your pasta, your bread. Just be aware of the quality of the products you are including in your diet. Sneaky added sugars quickly add up.

The latest buzz words right now are “keto” “paleo-friendly” "vegan" and “gluten-free.” I know many women who are not following a "keto" diet but will have the keto pancakes then pour on some maple syrup and think that they have achieved a healthy breakfast. Again it’s all about balance and being aware of what, and how much we are eating. Just because we may associate these words with healthy living does not make them so. (Oreos are vegan!) When developing a healthy lifestyle, it is important to take ownership of the food you buy and develop a deeper understanding of what makes it a quality, nourishing choice.

What’s on a Label

On the back of the label the main areas to watch out for are:

  • Serving size: it is often very small, and many people will eat way more

  • Calories: remember this is based on the serving size stated

  • Fat: trans, saturated or unsaturated

  • Daily value: based on 2000 calories/day

Good fats V bad fats

Although Trans fats were banned, they can still be hidden in a product. Up to ½ gram of Trans fat can still be labeled as 0! Why do we not want Trans fat in our body?...think back to chemistry class, the hydrogenation process. When we force more hydrogen into a fat chain, it becomes more stable, and the body has no way of breaking it down. It becomes stored fat. Trans fat, along with saturated fats increase the risk of disease.

Saturated fats occur when every hydrogen space on the fat chain is full, it becomes harder for the body to break down.

Lastly, unsaturated fats. The “good fats” which we need for brain health, supple skin, and the circulatory system. Unsaturated fats have holes in the chain so that our bodies can break them down easier, ready to utilize.

The calories in a product should contain no more than 25-30% from fat- first, be sure it’s a healthier fat source!

A bodybuilder diet?

The daily value on product labels is highly contradictory. As previously mentioned it’s based on a 2000/day calorie diet. Now unless you do A LOT of weight lifting or you are a bodybuilder, you will not be close to 2000 calories per day. The average is around 1400-1600. So even if you measure out your serving size based on the label, you will still be consuming a higher percentage of fat, carbs, etc. than you need, because you will not be eating a 2000/day calorie diet.

Remember, the label will never be a one size fits all. Adjust to suit your diet and your goals.

Vitamin & mineral content

A useful piece of information to consider on the label is the vitamin/mineral content. Many of us may take supplements to increase our intake, due to health or diet reasons- something to be discussed with your physician. It is always a good idea to check the vitamin/mineral content to be careful that you are not over-consuming. Minerals such as iron and calcium will accumulate in the body if you consume too much.

As a nutritionist in the Strong as a Mother coaching program, Erica can work with you to listen to, and work towards, your goals, but it’s always important to have regular check-ups with your physician. A blood test is the only way to see what your body is really lacking.

We work alongside your physician’s advice, helping you achieve what you need through changes to your diet, without always the need for supplements.

The importance of choosing the right carbs

Sugar is a carbohydrate. When you read the food label take a good look at the first five ingredients, is sugar mentioned? When the product that you are buying contains sugar as one of the first five ingredients, try and take a rethink. The carb choice is not ideal. You will experience a sudden hit of energy, but then a dramatic drop.

Choosing carbohydrates that will keep you fuller for longer will help with your nutritional goals. Be aware of the types of carbs that you are choosing- they are often one of the problem areas and easy to be over-eaten.

It’s especially important to be forward-thinking of the carb choices you make if you are diabetic, pregnant or if you are trying to lose weight.

Coach Erica’s Special Fiber Hack

In order to aid digestion and keep the bowels regular, it’s necessary to consume a balance of insoluble and soluble fibre. Erica has a great trick you can use in the supermarket to see if that pasta, bread or grain is the best choice, or if you should make a swap.

Soluble fiber holds water. It forms a gel in the GI tract, slowing down the transit time, therefore keeping you fuller for longer. Be sure to drink plenty of water when consuming soluble fiber or it will stick inside the GI tract. Soluble fiber is important to stabilize blood sugar, helping to reduce cholesterol. Some examples of soluble fiber include chia seeds, sweet potato, ground flax seeds, broccoli, oats, many fruits/veg, legumes, barley and rye.

Insoluble fiber adds bulk, helping with healthy, regular bowel movements. It does not hold water, rather it acts as a laxative, speeding the transit time, and helping to maintain the muscle tone of the GI tract. Similar to soluble fiber it can help reduce cholesterol. Think of your whole grains, brown rice, nuts, seeds and some fruit/veg as examples of insoluble fiber.

Here’s the hack: When tracking your fiber intake, consider the 5:1 ratio. Aim for 5 times more insoluble fiber than soluble fiber!

Relating fiber with your carb choices

It’s important to fuel the body in the best possible way; to feel great, look great and have energy every day.

Next time you are in the grocery store, or purchasing any type of carbohydrate; think bread, pasta, grains...try Erica’s useful tip. When selecting an unfamiliar product, maybe you fancy a change, or your usual isn’t in stock, try the 5:1 rule.

Take a look at the label, how many grams of carbohydrate does the product have? And how many grams of fiber?

Divide them, eg 30g of carbs, 3g fiber...30/3=10.

We are aiming for that last digit to be as close as possible to 5, which will show that the product has a good ratio of fiber/carbs. Carbs that will keep you fuller for longer, rather than leaving you with the dreaded hunger pangs.

I challenge you

Try making small changes. Use the fiber/carb ratio trick, find a different bread that has a better ratio, get closer to 5, and then feel the difference in your body.

Make a conscious effort to listen to the changes. Be open to exploring new tastes. When you increase your fiber intake you will stay fuller for longer. When you choose the best sources of fiber you will make even better choices.

Erica’s top tip is to eat your salad and veggies first, followed by your protein and lastly moving on to carbohydrates-it’s likely you won’t have as much room.

No need to cut them out completely...rather be aware of what you consume.

There is room for everything in a healthy diet. It’s about being more conscious of the food choices you make, aware of what the label is, or is not, saying and be aware of portion sizes. Living a healthy life, losing weight, gaining strength, whatever is your goal, make small choices every day that reflect it.

Watch the full video interview with Erica to hear all her useful tips:

What we fuel our body with is vital to live a healthy, fulfilling life. To have the energy to be as Strong as a Mother, you shouldn’t have to choose between being fit or being a mom. Stop treading water. Start living a more energy fulfilled day. Reclaim your health, and your life, now. Click here to learn more about the Strong as a Mother coaching program. My team and I will have you fit and strong without a ton of cardio nor restrictive dieting. We'll help you find the energy you need to feel good about yourself, great as a woman and strong as a mother.

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