Shopping at health food stores is becoming more popular. People are making conscious choices to eat anti-biotic free chicken and fresh vegetables, which is fantastic. There is a definitive shift towards making more healthy food choices and making nutrition education more readily available. I love shopping at Trader Joe’s. Everyone who knows me knows that I live for that store and proclaim all of their food to be absolutely delicious!
Going to “health stores” like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare is so convenient because I don’t have to worry about hydrogenated oils, harmful food dyes, and artificial preservatives like I would shopping at a regular grocery store. However, that does not make everything in the store healthy. Just because it is vegan, gluten free, and organic does not make it healthy, especially in unlimited quantities. No matter what store you shop at, you should ALWAYS read the food and ingredients label.
Food labels are confusing and have a lot of information. So first, let’s review how to read food label.
Always check the serving size and servings per container. Typically there are multiple servings per container, even if it is a food item that is typically eaten in one sitting. Remember to multiply each value on the nutrition label by the serving size! The second thing I look at is trans fats. If it has any trans fat, I do not buy it. Trans fats are types of fats that line your arteries, which increases risk of heart disease and stroke. The next thing I always look at is dietary fiber and sugar, located just above protein. Try to eat foods high in fiber and very low in sugar. Then, I glance at the macro nutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins). Choose foods high in protein and moderate in carbs and fat. Lastly, I check the sodium, potassium, and vitamins/minerals. Always look for food options low in sodium and high in potassium and vitamins/minerals.
Now that you understand key points on the nutrition label, we can move on to ingredients. The convenient part about shopping at health food stores is they generally police the types of ingredients in their food. But I always check just to be safe. Ingredients to avoid are hydrogenated oils (trans fats), partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients/flavor, MSG, nitrates, nitrites, preservatives, and sweeteners. The last two are the most tricky because they have many different names.
Here is a list of some common preservatives:
Those are some confusing words, and most of them do not sound appetizing. So just be aware that preservatives have many different names and to avoid foods containing such ingredients because they have been linked to increase risk of cancer and other diseases.
Here are some common artificial sweeteners:
Again, you would never know these ingredients are sweeteners. Some can even be more than 600x sweeter than actual sugar!
Now that we have reviewed food labels I would like to point out some problematic foods at these “health stores.” For example, Whole Foods’ Vegan Cookies. “Vegan” is typically associated with health and nutritious food choices. However, these vegan cookies are not healthy, especially in excess.
One serving of the cookie has 9 grams of sugar, only 2 grams of protein, and low fiber. As I reminded you earlier, one of the most important things to read on a nutrition label is serving size (100g). The cookies are huge, making one cookie 2.5-3 servings. The American Heart Associate recommends men should not exceed 37.5g and women should not exceed 25g of sugar per day. So eating one cookie would be 22.5-27g of sugar. This already exceeds the recommended value of sugar for women. Furthermore, these cookies are low in other nutrients like protein and fiber, which can help reduce the severity of insulin spikes caused by sugar and maintain satiety longer. Clearly Whole Foods Market vegan chocolate chip cookies are not inherently healthy. That is not to say that eating a cookie is bad or that I am saying Whole Foods is bad. I love these cookies! They are absolutely delicious, and it is potentially a healthier alternative to eating Chips Ahoy or Oreos. Nonetheless please realize that everything in health food stores is not necessarily health, especially when consuming multiple servings. Always read the food label and check the serving size.
Another example are some of Trader Joe’s ready-made meals. They contain healthy ingredients, but can also have multiple servings per container making them very high calorically. Additionally, they often have a lot of added sodium.
The Palak Paneer nutrition label is for only half of the container. Typically these meals are eaten in one sitting, so realize you are eating two servings, i.e. 500 calories, 38g of fat, 1600 mg of sodium, etc.
The big picture is, not everything at “health food stores” is inherently healthy or a good food choice. I encourage you to shop at these stores regularly because they have great variety of items and good ingredients. However, no matter what store you shop at always read the food label! Know what and how much you are consuming.