Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The 3 Things I Look at When Reading Food Nutrition Labels

I was at Trader Joes this past weekend, and stumbled across some Gluten-Free Blueberry Muffins. I turned them over to read the label, and started laughing...

One, because I am a nerd.

And two, because, the first ingredient listed on the nutrition label was Cane Sugar...aka...Sugar.

This got me thinking about how I approach food nutrition labels. While I would love to shop at the Farmer's Market every week, I can't make it happen with my work schedule. I shop a lot at Trader Joe's for affordable staples (hello, raw almond butter!) and Whole Foods when I can (because it is dangerously located across the street from our apartment). 

I love grocery shopping, which is good for my boyfriend, who loathes it. Our grocery staples typically include coffee (priorities), eggs, chicken sausage, coconut water, greens, sweet potatoes, an assortment of nut butters, plantain chips (Brent is addicted), frozen fruit for smoothies, dried mango, larabars (trying to qualm my post-work late-night snacking), chocolate (#keepitreal), and more veggies.

I thought it'd be interesting to go over what I look for when I read labels; this isn't meant to be pointing out right and wrong or be exhaustive, but rather, highlight which aspects of food labels I pay attention to. 

1. The first thing I look at is the wording on the front label:

  • Is it organic? I really try to buy mostly organic, but if I am being honest, this does not happen 100% of the time. Here are some things I will not compromise on, however, meaning, I always buy organic:
    • Coffee - I love this one from TJs
    • Frozen and fresh berries
    • Apples
    • Frozen and fresh greens
    • Sweet potatoes, carrots, and other root veggies
    • Brown rice and quinoa (the primary grains we eat...when we aren't too lazy to cook them)
    • And finally, eggs: first and foremost, I buy pastured, free-range eggs. I always laugh when I see "vegetarian fed diet" Chickens ARE NOT vegetarians; they eat bugs! As they should. So don't be fooled by the label of "Fed a 100% vegetarian diet." 
  • When in doubt, this list of the Dirty Dozen, compiled by the Environmental Working Group, is incredibly helpful if you are trying to prioritize which foods to buy organic, and which to buy conventional. I love the EWG, as they provide wonderful, resourceful information for consumers, and recognize that many people cannot afford to buy all organic products.
  • If I am shopping at the Farmers Market, and notice that the farmers do not have a USDA Organic Seal, I simply ask the farmers if they spray their crops. The reason I do this is because becoming USDA Organic is a long, expensive process, that takes years for farmers to obtain; many small farms cannot afford to do so. If a farmer is selling beautiful, sweet strawberries, and tells me he or she doesn't spray them, I'm going to buy them! 

2. The second thing I look at is the list of ingredients, in their respective order: I don't buy a ton of processed food, but of the processed food I do buy, I pay attention to the order of the ingredients. Per the Food and Drug Administration guidelines, the ingredients on a food label must be listed in order of amount, with the most starting first. This is why I laughed when I saw cane sugar as the first ingredient on the so-called 'healthy' blueberry muffins. Here are a few of the ingredients I am noticing tend to show up on many labels, as of lately:

  • Corn / Canola / Soybean oils: These are processed, cheap-to-use, refined oils, rich in omega 6 fats. Now, we need both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats in our diet. However, Americans tend to consume way too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats, and this unbalanced ratio can lead to inflammation. I will occasionally buy products with corn or canola oil, but very rarely. Instead, I try to focus on eating healthy, balanced, fatty foods, like grass fed butter, avocados, nuts, seeds, and flax (which I strongly prefer to Chia...I know, I am weird). 
  • Carageenan: Carageenan is actually extracted from seaweed, and is used as a thickener in food products. You'll often see it listed on the food labels in products such as non-dairy milks, yogurt, or ice cream. There is a lot of controversy on the safety of carageenan as a dietary ingredient, especially because it has been associated with gut health issues. I like this article, by Chris Kresser, on the subject. Of course, this is one of the reasons why I love to make my own almond milk. But right now, I got 24 hours of summer school + 25 hours of work per week so...ain't nobody got time for that.
  • Yellow 5, Red 40, aka Fake Colorings/Food Dyes: This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a nutrition professional! I absolutely hate when I see a food label (or even, supplement label) that has fake coloring listed as an ingredient. Honestly, what is the point? If the food tastes good, shouldn't that be what matters? Who cares if it is bright red or yellow?  Did you know that the European Union has regulations on these food dyes, but the US doesn't? Food dyes are linked to a number of health issues, and thus, I avoid them, as I feel they are unnecessary. The Center for Science in The Public Interest did a lengthy report on the use of food dyes, which you can find here.

3. The third thing I look at is the amount of grams and types of sugar:

  • Agave 
  • Cane Sugar
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Corn Syrup
  • Beet Sugar
  • Date Sugar
  • Evaporated Cane Juice
  • Organic Raw Sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Maple Syrup

  • These are all common names for sugar, just a few. Organic or natural or not - they are all sugars. Sugar is a controversial topic. And I think that the food industry is picking up on that, obviously, and trying to market products made with sugars such as maple syrup or brown rice syrup, as health foods. Don't get me wrong, I love maple syrup and I love dessert. But in the end, it's sugar too. 
  • I also wrote a post about making sure you watch out for overloading your 'green' smoothies with sugar. You can read it here.
  • It is especially important to pay attention to the amount of sugar when buying things such as yogurt/greek yogurt, nut milks, and so-called 'green juices.' I think that 20 grams of sugar in a small serving of yogurt is way too much. Here is the nutrition label for a Green Juice, marketed with the label "No Sugar Added."
  • Um...28 grams of sugar x 2 servings = 56 grams of sugar for a so-called green juice. Think about it: would you really eat 2 3/4 apples + 1/2 of a banana + 1/3 of a kiwi + 1/3 of a mango + a bite of pineapple in one sitting? Frankly, I would rather just eat 1 apple with some almond butter, and call it a day.

So, those are the top 3 things I look at when I read a nutrition label. 

Now you tell me, how do you look at food nutrition labels? Which things are most important to you?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Journey to Become an RD: 7 Things I Learned In My First Year of My Dietetics Program

And just like that, it's done. 

It's been two weeks since I finished my first year of my two-year Dietetics program, or as I like to call it, RD-school. And honestly, it's taken two weeks to de-stress and decompress into Summer.

I wish I could say the first year went by fast, but this past semester went by painfully slow. Lots of group projects, never-ending rounds of midterms (damn you, semester system), and lots of biochemistry studying. 

My dining room wall art of metabolic pathways...

But, nonetheless, I am done. Free. Ready for a Summer with a tad more free time.

Reflection is a good thing, right? Here are 7 things I learned in my first year of RD School:

1. I am capable.  When I first pondered going back to school to become a Registered Dietitian, I was deeply intimidated by the amount of science required in RD programs: chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, advanced medical nutrition, etc...I feared the worse, told myself I would probably barely get through, and that maybe going into science just wouldn't be for me. However, I made it through all these classes; I enjoyed biochemistry the most, as I got to learn about carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism (the latter, of which, is my favorite, obviously. Because fats are delicious). 

2. Negative energy is not cool and will not serve you: During my first semester, I was shocked by how much negative energy I encountered, specifically regarding how competitive internship programs are for dietetics. To obtain your RD license, you must complete an accredited internship that lasts anywhere from 6 to 12 months; you do the internship after you complete the 2-year schooling. Although these are all over the country, there aren't enough to meet demand. For example, 150 people may apply to one program, which has only 8 spots. I let this negative energy consume me for the first few months and it started to eat away at me. I did not like the person I was becoming. It's been a process, but I have been actively working on staying positive throughout the program, and not letting the negative energy get to me.

3. I learned a lot about mass food production and food safety. I also learned how to torch a damn good creme brûlée. A large part of the curriculum for dietetics is learning how to run a safe kitchen. Think about it! RDs work in schools, hospitals, cafeterias, and food safety is a huge issue. I'm sure you've all heard about the numerous product recalls over the past few months - one that comes to mind is the Listeria monocytogenes contamination in Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. For one of my classes, we had to spend three hours a week in the back of a teaching kitchen at our school, preparing a 3-course lunch for faculty. As a Type A person, I definitely prefer to cook freely in my own kitchen. But my school friends and I found ways to make this experience more enjoyable.

Creepy creme brûlée face

4. I was humbled as I learned (or rather, re-learned), to live in a very expensive city on a very limited budget. I was lucky to find a waitressing job that is close to my apartment as well as lucrative in terms of tips. My loans cover my tuition and books, so I pay all living expenses off of my tips; trust me, it's nuts. Adjusting to my new budget has been quite the process and is a constant struggle; this has meant, no shopping, no Lululemon (my fave), minimal meals out, limited travel, and picking up waitressing shifts whenever I can.  I'm lucky to have a boyfriend who takes me out to delicious, nice dinners, and treats me wonderfully. But this whole budget adjustment has been quite humbling. I remind myself, a lot, that it's temporary.

5. Remember to laugh when shit gets weird ----> shit will get weird. I made a few wonderful friends through my program. The peer support is critical to well-being.

6. I am interested in new aspects of nutrition that I never thought I would be interested in. I took a nutrition class called "Nutrition in the Life Cycle" which went over nutrition needs and conditions from pre-conception all the way into elderly populations. I never thought I would be so interested in things like breastfeeding, but I found the research on it fascinating. Then again, I am obsessed with learning about gut health and autoimmune diseases. I even wrote a research paper of Ulcerative Colitis, the role of the gut microbiota, and the possible treatment with fecal transplants (poop is fascinating); cool stuff, for sure.

7. My time is precious. If you want to do well, you have to fully commit, and make sacrifices...aka say NO: I hate saying no to people. I let guilt consume me. But, I've had to say no to a lot over the past year, whether it be for financial reasons or time-management reasons. The RD program is not just school; it's volunteering, lots of studying, and for me, working too. I prioritized my studies, and in the end, I am proud of my grades from this first year. 

It has been, by far, the most challenging yet rewarding year of my life. 

Even throughout all the stress, late nights studying, long hours waitressing, missing out on social events, bloodshot eyes (yes, I actually popped a blood vessel in my eye three weeks ago from too much screen-time), it was worth it. 

I recently saw a bunch of old coworkers from my advertising days, and they asked me "are you happy?" I've been asked this question a lot this past year, and my answer has and continues to be "I've never been so stressed, but so happy. I've never looked back." 

PS: If you are interested in reading more about my journey to become an RD, please check out these:

A Big, Scary, and Exciting Life Change
Journey to Become an RD: My First Week of School
Journey to Become an RD: The Second Semester