As calorie counters and nutrition apps become ever more popular the role of nutritionists has to evolve. When I first entered the industry about 50% of nutrition revolved around teaching others how to fill in food diaries and log their meals. Although this is still useful knowledge to have, the growing number of apps that estimate the nutritional content of a meal continue to rise and questions like, “How many calories does a banana have?” are becoming a thing of the past.
Yes, the days when I was bombarded with questions such as, “How many calories are there in a McDonald’s?”, or having to research ‘super’ foods such as avocados in order that I could explain where they would fit into a healthy diet, are thankfully coming to an end. This leaves nutritionists, such as myself, with more free time on our hands to write sarcastic blogs and develop educational materials that actually help our clients.
In this article I will be covering some of the more practical aspects of nutrition on the go and help outline some time saving tips that will help you to choose more nutritious snacks without breaking the bank. To do this we will be looking at three of the essential aspects of nutritional education: food labels, nutrient density and the glycaemic index.
How to use food labels to make better choices
By law food labels have to appear on everything from a bottle of gin to a loaf of bread and a packet of bacon – the three mainstays of the modern British diet. Food labels are found on all pre-packaged foods and contain large amounts of information on the product ranging from the expiration date to the calorie content and its nutritional value. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how much information is available on the packaging if people don’t know how to read it, and the policy makers have managed to forget to teach the public what everything on the back of the box actually means.
The thing is, once you understand how to interpret the information on a food label it becomes pretty easy to tell which foods are healthier and see through the tricks marketers use to regularly pull the wool over our eyes – meaning that with a little third party help and a nudge in the right direction food labels can actually fulfil the role they were designed for.
Dietary reference values
First things first are the dietary reference values (DRVs) that appear on all packaging that point out the recommended daily allowance for each major nutrient group found within a product, which sounds all well and good until you realise that DRV’s are not individual nutrition advice and at best act as an approximation for the population as a whole. So when a product says it’s 12% of your daily sodium intake, take that figure with a metaphorical pinch of salt and remember that these numbers are guidelines not a goal.
Okay, let’s start with dietary reference values (DRV’s). These appear on all packaging and show the recommended daily allowance for each major nutrient group found within a product. This sounds all well and good until you realise that DRV’s is not individual nutrition advice; at best it acts only as an approximation for the population as a whole. So as an example, when a product says it is 12% of your daily sodium intake, take that figure with a metaphorical pinch of salt and remember that these numbers are guidelines not a goal.
What needs to be on a food label?
Legally, food labels must disclose certain elements on the food labelling and these are;
• Product name
• Total volume of weight
• Either a date mark or best before date
• Storage instructions
• Ingredients list
• Manufacturer details
• Packer or retailer
• Place or origin
• Allergen information
Putting this information aside, when you think of a food label the first thing that comes to mind is usually a grid on the back of the packaging showing the nutritional information such as the number of calories and the amount of fat, saturated fats, protein, carbohydrates and sugar. The important thing to remember here is that all food labels have to have the information based upon 100g of the product, and no matter what portion sizes a manufacturer may recommend this 100g value is the one to use when comparing two products side by side.
When shopping for health foods in particular, terms such as high and low are amongst the most common pieces of additional information found on a food label, and although there are guidelines for what these terms should mean in terms of fats, salts, sugar etc., in general they mean very little as food marketers have a propensity to throw them around to make products appear healthier than they actually are.
Red light, Green light
Conveniently for those in a rush most food products contain some basic nutrition information on the front utilising a traffic light system. This is where you can glance at the sugar, fats and protein content of the food and gauge how healthy the product is meant to be using the general rule of thumb that the greener the label the better it is for you. Just remember that these systems can be easily manipulated as they are based on what the manufacturer deems to be a portion size. Be aware, this could be a fraction of the total contents of the pack.
Applying it on the Go
When comparing food labels on the Go, the traffic light system can be useful when making snap decisions. However, if two similar products catch your eye it is often more beneficial to turn over the packaging and directly compare the nutritional value per 100g on the back. Alternatively, if you are in a hurry and looking for a truly health option just grab a piece of fruit, like a banana instead of dwelling over which light bite contains the most sugar – just a thought!
Why bananas are better than biscuits
Over the counter advice, such as not eating white pasta and having five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day, are thrown around so often that they’ve become background noise and sound so simple that they surely can’t’ be all there is to it. But the thing is, eating healthier isn’t rocket science despite what marketers want you to think, and shopping smart doesn’t have to break the bank.
In my time teaching people about nutrition, you would be surprised how often the little things have fallen on deaf ears and it took me a while to understand why, and when I did I face palmed so hard I got a nosebleed. To cut a long story short, and after speaking to numerous people with the same misconceptions, I realised that no one had bothered to explain to them why we should eat more fruit and that people spent so much time comparing calories that they had forgotten about everything else. Sadly, both Government campaigns and mainstream diets have also neglected to explain the two most important concepts of nutrition; nutrient density and bioavailability.
Nutrient density -vs- Energy density
So why are bananas better for you than biscuits? Both a banana and a biscuit sit on the opposite end of the nutritional scale and no fancy marketing will change that, even if the biscuit is a high protein, low fat, low calorie natural product. The formal definition of nutrient density is a bit of a mouthful but in laymen’s terms it boils down to the amount of nutrients in proportion to energy contained within the food. The more nutrient dense it is the healthier it is, and the more energy dense it is the less healthy it is.
Bananas are packed full of nutritional value with one medium ripe banana containing around 110 calories, which is the same as many name brand biscuits, but a banana also contains 3 grams of fibre and around 450mg of potassium, which isn’t bad for a few mouthfuls on the go. A banana will also provide enough of a ‘pick me up’ to see you through to the next meal.
On the other hand, we have our named brand biscuit, which has a similar number of calories per biscuit as you will find in a whole banana. It also has packaging claiming to contain a number of different nutrients in varying amounts, which on the surface can make biscuits appear healthier than they are. Gram for gram biscuits contain a lot more calories than a banana with the bulk of those coming from trans-fats and refined carbohydrates – making biscuits anti-nutritious in nature.
Simply put, the energy contained within the biscuits cannot be released without specific vitamins and minerals and, unlike a banana, they don’t contain the vitamins and minerals required to “unlock” the sugars they contain. This means that over time the body becomes deprived of certain nutrients so it has it has to tap into its reserves to digest them, eventually leading to a nutrient deficiency.
Bioavailability – Why its bananas to take un-prescribed supplements.
Bioavailability is the term used to describe the body’s ability to properly absorb and metabolise the nutrients within, and is strongly linked with a food’s nutrient density. Using our pervious example, bananas have a higher bioavailability than biscuits as they contain all the nutrients within to be absorbed and digested by the body whilst biscuits quite simply don’t. I could cover this in much more detail but to explain the concept of bioavailability, a better example and pet peeve of mine comes to mind. The humble protein shake.
For 30 years protein shakes have been a mainstay of the fitness industry and plugged as a quick fix for those wanting to increase their protein intake and or looking for a meal replacement. Food marketers are clever, and I tip my hat to them, for convincing the public that the dried out leftovers from cheese making are a desirable commodity that form an essential part of most gym rats daily routine. Behind all the branding and terminologies that imply health benefits such as “precision engineered” and “highly advanced” products, lies a humble product that for centuries we’ve seen as waste to be fed to pigs.
Whey protein has multiple sources, but because the end product is basically the same we’re going to concentrate on the traditional dairy based protein shakes, as whey protein makes up 20% of the total protein content of milk; which happens to have the highest biological value in terms of nutrition.
Whey protein requires fats for all the branched chain amino acids to be absorbed properly into the body so it can be used in muscle repair and growth; however just like banana bread differs from the humble banana, a tub of protein powder differs from its original form.
Flavourings and additives aside, the way that whey is processed on an industrial scale changes the properties of the protein powdered product at a chemical level. The process of drying out this liquid by-product to create enough powder requires that temperatures are often maintained above 60 degrees Celsius for prolonged periods of time. This breaks down bonds within the structures of the essential amino acids within, altering their shape and destroying the functionality of these fragile proteins in the end product as when it comes to nutrition the structure dictates the function within the body. Add in the fact that protein shakes have low fat contents, you end up with a product that lacks the nutrients required to absorb and use the already damaged proteins. So you’re left asking why you paid so much money for a tub of glorified animal feed packed with additives to taste almost palatable.
Why it’s bananas to ignore the glycaemic index.
Counting calories has gotten us into a mind-set where we’ve turned nutrition into basic maths at the expense of everything else. So now you have more understanding about nutrient density and bioavailability, the final pillar of any good nutrition education is the glycaemic index. When I first did my training, this was the part I struggled to understand the most, as although the concept is relatively simple it’s easy to overcomplicate everything. I will try to avoid any unnecessary tangents from here on out.
The glycaemic index is directly tied to blood glucose levels and your body’s insulin response. As any diabetic will tell you, high glycaemic index foods cause your blood sugar to go through the roof so in order to understand the glycaemic index we first need to understand both insulin and the insulin response.
Insulin plays a significant role in energy storage and is a major contributing factor towards obesity. The role of insulin includes pushing glucose and amino acids into your cells, increasing glycogen synthesis in the liver and supressing the breakdown of fats. Although this is necessary to fuel your body at a cellular level, among the cells that glucose is pushed into are the adipose cells that store fat. In simple terms, this means that high insulin levels increase the rate at which you gain body fat and decreases the rate at which you are able to burn it.
Energy dense foods, like our biscuits, contain large amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars which are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing insulin spikes as the body releases insulin in an attempt to lower your blood sugar levels. We refer to foods that cause these spikes as high glycaemic index foods. High glycaemic index foods include potatoes and white carbohydrates as well as most processed foods and soft drinks, which also happen to be much less nutrient dense and a lower biological value.
Basically, the glycaemic index (GI) is how you categorise your foods based on how quickly they release energy into the blood stream. Low GI foods provide a more constant energy supply throughout the day, whilst high GI foods provide fast energy release but promote body fat production and when regularly eaten contribute to the development of diabetes. On the other hand, foods with a high GI value should be limited since they are quickly digested and absorbed, resulting in a rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels.
Where do bananas come into all of this?
If it isn’t fairly obvious already bioavailability, nutrient density and the glycaemic index are all interconnected with each other to such an extent that its bananas they aren’t all common knowledge, with the humble banana being the perfect example of all three concepts in play.
You see low GI foods such as bananas are not only more nutrient dense but also have a higher bioavailability as they contain the necessary balance of nutrients that they can all help each other be absorbed properly into the body. In fact, one of the reasons low GI foods prevent blood sugar spikes is because the body takes longer to absorb the sugars as its busy trying to absorb everything else too, throw in indigestible plant matter such as fibre that further slows down digestion and you’re left with a nutrient dense energy source that you can conveniently grab on the go.
Calorie counting is a great guide but at the end of the day it’s just a tool to make you think about what you eat. Yes, food labels are useful and everyone should learn how to read them, but the human body is complex and all nutrition is a case of trial and error to find what works for you, therefore understanding the principles behind it is much more important than wasting your time figuring out how many sweets make up a 100-calorie portion. Micronutrients lack any calorific value so is often overlooked by this method of thinking, and yet they still play a fundamental roll in our ability to function properly and affect our ability to absorb and use the calories within our food properly. Finally, if the idea of counting calories on the go isn’t bananas enough, you can see that the answer to all this is also bananas.
I promise, I don’t have shares in a banana plantation!