Most experts agree one need to do two things to lose weight: eat less and move more. While there are an abundance of methods to keep that extra weight off, one of them is to pay attention to the nutritional information panels printed on the packaging of the products that we eat.
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Packaged foods have become increasingly common in Kenyan urban households. Virtually all food groups, from staples like ugali, rice, bread and other foods such as legumes, fruit, vegetables, mayonnaise, ketchup and more can be found neatly packaged at your local supermarket.
According to nutrition consultant Lucy Muli, one must be keen on the nutritional facts printed on packaged foods.
“Nutritional fact labels can direct anyone who is trying monitor their weight and even for those with specialized diets such as diabetics,” says Muli.
The nutritionist purports that being aware of the food labels can go a long way to ensuring that one eats a balanced diet for healthy body and mind.
A new study published in the Agricultural Economics Journal showed a link between obesity and food labels. The study revealed that participants who read nutritional fact information weigh an average four kilograms less than the participants who do not.
The results of the study determined that reading food labels plays a role in successful weight management.
I asked a group of ladies to share their opinions on using printed nutrition information as a guideline for weight loss.
“That is a good idea, one that I am willing to try,” said one enthusiastic respondent. She added however that she would combine the tactic with exercise for maximum benefit.
Student Mariana Chepkirui rejects the idea saying that she did not fully trust the accuracy information printed on packaging, and so preferred to eat traditional foods.
“I also discovered that I have an allergy to canned foods,” says Kemei. She adds however that not everyone reacts in the same way.
UNDERSTANDING FOOD LABELS
Food labels can be very confusing and tricky to understand. Often we don’t have the time to spend trying to work out what they mean and how to use them.
Knowing what nutrition information to look for is key as it can help you make the best choice for your health and avoid unnecessary saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and kilojoules.
Labels on most packaged food must meet strict requirements that include information for people with food allergies, food additive listings and food storage instructions.
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Muli says the nutrition information panel on a food label offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre.
It can also be used to decide how large one serve of a food group choice or discretionary food (chocolates, sweets and such) would be and whether it’s worth the kilojoules. This is particularly important if you are trying to lose weight.
According to a document released by the Australian Government Ministry of Health, weight loss requires one to avoid discretionary foods as they provide few nutrients but plenty of kilojoules.
However, it is still possible to include small serves of discretionary foods, eaten occasionally and savored by eating slowly and enjoying the food with all our senses.
The document adds that the trick is to choose only the foods or drinks that we really enjoy. Whether you have a sweet tooth or love chocolate; perhaps you prefer savory treats such as pizza.
The Nutrition Information Panel can help us decide if a food is really worth the kilojoules.
Beware of foods that look like a single serve, but actually contain several servings in one packet. Once we know the kilojoules in a serve, we can weigh up whether our enjoyment warrants the extra kilojoules.
Most labels list nutrients in a serve of the product as a percentage of daily nutrient intake; this can be used to compare the nutrients in one serve of the food with what an ‘average adult’ needs.
This information can give you a rough guide, but your individual nutritional and energy needs could be quite different.
On that note, the amount of nutrients and energy required on a daily basis differs from person to person depending on their energy needs. The specific needs can be indicated by an individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI) and their goal, be it weight loss, gain or maintenance.
BMI is a screening tool used to determine body fat content and defines normal weight, overweight and obesity. It is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by their height.
“One should focus on the total amount of energy needed in a day, and how much can be obtained from the various food groups, and from packaged goods” advises Muli.
She adds that particular attention should be paid to carbohydrates because they are abundant in many foods and are a contributor to weight gain.
“Don’t avoid carbohydrates entirely, but eat them in controlled amounts according to individual needs,” advises Muli.
To get a clear indication on your daily needs, consult your doctor, nutritionist or fitness expert for advice.
“At times food labels may not be clear or accurate, which can mislead consumers in terms of their nutritional value,” warns Muli.
To mitigate such risks, she recommends that one selects products from well known companies, particularly if they have been accredited by regulators such as Kenya Bureau of Standards.
HOW TO READ FOOD LABELS
Here is a brief guideline on how to understand food labels:
1. Start with the serving information at the top of the label – This will tell you the size of a single serving and the total number of servings per package or container.
2. Next, check total calories per serving – Pay attention to the calories per serving and how many servings you're really consuming if you eat the whole package. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients.
The next section of information on a nutrition label is about the amounts of specific nutrients in the product.
3. Limit these nutrients – Experts recommend limiting these nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie diet, no more than 11-13 grammes of saturated fat, as little trans fat as possible, and no more than 1,500 mg of sodium.
4. Get enough of these nutrients – Make sure you get enough of beneficial nutrients such as: dietary fiber, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins and other nutrients you need every day.
5. Quick guide to percentage Daily Value – The percentage Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount.
As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fat or sodium), choose foods with a lower per cent DV — 5 percent or less. If you want to consume more of a nutrient (such as fiber), seek foods with a higher per cent DV — 20 percent or more.
So if you are keen to shed a few kilos, you may benefit from eating after reading! That food label could make all the difference.
The next time you go shopping remember to pay attention to the nutritional fact labels on the packaging to ensure that you make healthier choices for you and your family.