We would all be healthier if we read and understood nutrition facts labels. On the other hand, we would also be healthier if we just avoided most processed foods. Regardless of how healthy processed foods appear on the nutrition facts label, they all contain sodium or sugar to make them taste better.
If you don’t want to spend time deciding which processed foods are the least harmful each time you shop for groceries, try these tips:
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store where fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products and fresh fish and meats are located.
- Stock up on fruits and vegetables, like carrots, grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, celery, cucumbers, yams and squash.
- Avoid most processed meats, which are usually high in sodium.
- Select lean cuts of meat and plan to eat sensible portions a few times each week rather than every day.
- Skip margarine, pudding and sugar filled yogurt found on the perimeter.
- Purchase cheeses naturally low in fat, like Swiss and Parmesan, and plan to use sparingly.
- Venture down aisles with single ingredient items: rice, dried beans, 100 percent whole grain oats, healthy oils.
- Learn to cook with spices and herbs.
- Purchase whole grain pastas and breads.
- Low-salt canned tomatoes and beans are also good. But be wary of the trade off when a canned item states low fat on the label. Sodium is usually increased to compensate for the loss of flavor when fat is reduced or eliminated. To lower the sodium in canned beans, drain the liquid and rinse in water.
Consider eating healthy an investment: You can spend more time and money now to purchase healthy foods, or pay more later in increased health care costs.
Reaction to the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement a couple of weeks ago that it would work to reduce salt in Americans’ diets sparked a lot of discussion about how far the government should go. For now, the FDA is working on developing plans that would allow manufacturers to comply voluntarily, and many were already taking steps to reduce salt.
Have sodium and food reversed roles?
The average person only needs about 1,500 mg. of sodium daily. The average American consumes almost twice that much. American’s have known to cut back on salt consumption for decades, but the majority of salt consumed is not added at the table by consumers. According to a story posted by The New York Times, about 75 percent of salt comes from processed foods. Salt is added to foods by manufacturers and by restaurants as a flavor enhancer. A government-commissioned report reveals that perhaps 100,000 premature deaths a year are from sodium overload and states that salt amounts in some grocery and restaurant foods should be declared unsafe.
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, posted alarming amounts of sodium in some restaurant foods:
- Chili’s Jalapeno Smokehouse Burger, with Jalapeno Ranch dressing and a side of fries has 6,460 mg of sodium — more than four day’s worth in one meal or almost three teaspoons.
- Chili’s black bean soup has 1,480 mg. of sodium — almost an entire day’s worth for many people.
Such high sodium content in foods makes me wonder if salt’s purpose is no longer merely to enhance the flavor of food. It’s as if salt has become the primary flavor to mask a lack of flavor in many foods.
According to a story by Lauren Cox for ABCNews/Health, a recent discovery revealed that mummies housed at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo showed signs of having had heart disease. Doctors performed a CT scan used in diagnosing people today on the mummies and found calcium deposits in arteries — evidence of plaque build-up that leads to hardening of the arteries. The story also reports the doctors were surprised by their findings: “We thought that we would find it, but maybe very rarely, and we thought that if we did find it, it wouldn’t be so severe,” said Adel H. Allam, the lead author of a letter to the editor.
Is everyone predisposed for heart disease?
People living 3,500 years ago certainly could not have faced the same lifestyle challenges we face today — lack of exercise and a ready supply of processed meats and other foods high in fat and salt. If they still had heart disease in the absence of these factors, perhaps people are predisposed for heart disease. If so, how we expect to avoid the disease today with all the added risk factors?
Does lifestyle impact one’s risk of heart disease?
While certain people are predisposed for a greater risk of heart disease, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same lifestyle habits that contribute to heart disease today were also present during the lifetimes of the mummies tested. Only the wealthy were mummified in ancient Egypt, which means that mummies tested probably did not do physical labor related to work and likely led sedentary lifestyles. Being wealthy would also mean they had access to meats high in cholesterol, which were preserved in large amounts of salt during that time.
While I’m not relieved that the mummies had heart disease during their lifetime, I am relieved that lifestyle factors may have played a part in the development of their disease. Modifying lifestyle habits and reducing risk factors that contribute to heart disease — a diet high in fat and salt and a lack of exercise — may have prevented heart disease from developing during the lives of these ancient Egyptians just as it does for people living today.