What criteria should I use to determine healthy and unhealthy foods?

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Answered by: Marion, An Expert in the Choose the Right Foods Category
"No Carb, Low Carb, Organic, Low Calorie". Trying to keep up with the latest nutritional information can seem like a daunting task. One week carbohydrates are the enemy, the next week we are watching cholesterol and fat. After a while it seems like the information begins to contradict itself. So how do we determine healthy and unhealthy foods?

One of the most deceiving aspects of nutrition is what I refer to as the "healthy" unhealthy food; meaning the food in disguise. The "healthy" unhealthy food has many labels, and we constantly see them advertised. These are the prepackaged diet foods, the low sugar/low carbohydrate foods, the high protein foods and the high fiber foods. Most of these foods have brothers and sisters that come in the full flavor, low fat, or fat free packages. But have you ever stopped to really compare the differences? If one product claims to be low fat, it will have more sugar than the others, if the other package is fat free, it will have more carbohydrates. In the end, nobody wins. We are simply trading out one unhealthy ingredient for another.

However, this doesn't mean that we can't decipher what actually constitutes a healthy or unhealthy food. A key factor in differentiating between healthy and unhealthy is simply ingredients. So many of these highly marketed "super foods" that claim to have "five times more protein" come packed with ingredients; most of them we can barely pronounce, and yet these ingredients end up culminating in the bulk of our diet. Take a quick assessment of your own pantry. How many of the food products in your home have a long list of ingredients? These foods can be anything from cereals, to canned foods, to microwave meals and snack foods. The labels probably make outrageous claims, leading the consumer to believe that in fact they are eating less sugar, or more fiber. However, is this naturally part of the product, or has science allowed us to manipulate the foods with ingredients so that the company selling the product can make these claims?

In determining how healthy and unhealthy the foods in your home are, begin with the ingredients. Truly healthy, natural foods should have about five ingredients or less. And it is precisely these foods which should constitute the bulk of what you are consuming. For example, if apples came with nutrition labels, the ingredients should only say "APPLE". We know apples have sugar and vitamins in them, but these are not artificially added through chemicals and preservatives. Therefore, an apple is only an apple. Milk is another example of a natural food. It is going to have more ingredients than an apple, but the point is, the ingredients are part of the food, not added too.

How about a popular snack food, like potato chips? The most natural part of this snack is the actual potato, but think about the processing that the potato goes through in order to achieve the desired taste? Now look at the ingredients label on a bag of chips. Way more than five, and as the list goes on, the words become more multi-syllabic.

An easy way to determine the nutritional value of a food is to start with the ingredients. This is one of the most simplistic pieces of advice in determining healthy and unhealthy foods, and a rule of thumb you aren't likely to forget. The more natural and pure the food, the shorter the ingredients list will be. And if the majority of our diet is made up of these natural foods, it helps take the guess work out of eating. Combining these natural foods allows us to make smart decisions about our personal nutrition, and most importantly creates delicious meals which no artificial ingredient can compare to.

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