In my first year as a health coach, the same thing would happen every time I started working with a new client…
We would start talking about how to identify real food at a grocery store, going through all of the sections, discussing where to find the healthiest foods, and looking at their favorite foods, deciding if they are real or not.
Once you understand the basics, you know what to look for on any package or label and can start making healthier decisions the majority of the time.
It should also be noted that, while there are healthy packaged options, eating lots of foods that don’t require packaging (or are the sole ingredient on the label, i.e. almonds) is the best bet. Load up on produce, fresh protein, nuts, seeds, and beans mostly, and when you need to or really want to, use these guidelines to find healthy packaged options.
In an ideal situation, you would look at the can/bag/package and recognize all of the ingredients and recognize them as real food. If we are talking canned tomatoes, you want just tomatoes, salt, and maybe some vinegar. Popcorn? Organic corn, sea salt, and coconut oil. Soups? Just veggies, broth, herbs, and spices.
When you start seeing words you don’t recognize or sound vaguely familiar (like you heard your science teacher use it a time or two) it’s an indicator that there are additives or preservatives. Steer clear.
I always chuckle when a client reaches out asking if xanthum gum or citric acid or whatever science experiment sounding word is real food. If you have to ask (or google it), the answer is probably no.
The most natural, real food is only one ingredient, but if you are going with something packaged, it’s likely that there are multiple ingredients. Sticking to packages that have 5 ingredients or less will minimize your exposure to preservatives and unhealthy ingredients. This is especially important if you are buying something that has an ingredient you don’t recognize; make sure it has just a handful of ingredients.
Additionally, pay attention to the order of those ingredients. Companies list the ingredients in order of most used to least used, so the first ingredient is most abundant in the product and the last ingredient shows up the least in the food. If your “juice” starts off with sugar and its last ingredient is a fruit, well, you are getting mostly sugar.
I don’t care about calories, fat, or carbs. Ignore all of those parts of the labels and zero in on sugar. (Unless you want to also check trans fat which we want at 0.) You would be surprised at how much sugar is in packaged goods and the type of foods they show up in… tomatoes, soups, yogurt, sauces- sugar is everywhere! And companies do their very best to hide it in their products by using different kinds so we don’t recognize the name in the ingredients list. Some products use 10+ different types of sugar in one product!
Keep your sugar intake low by making sure your packaged food has less than 5 grams of sugar, unless you are purchasing raw honey, dates, or another completely pure, real food that will be used as the sweetener, in moderation.
With my clients I also get deep into organic vs. conventional, antibiotics, hormones, wild caught, farm raised…. we go through all the lingo. But this is a great place to get you started!
If you have any questions, leave them below and I will share my take!
My goal for you is to make use of these tips the majority of the time. Occasional treats that don’t meet these guidelines are fine, but what we bring in the house most of the time should be within these parameters.