Food labels cause more confusion and guilt than healthy decisions

If you want to eat healthily, don't waste time deciphering labels. Here's why you should look at the big picture instead.

Packaged foods are covered with labels – Nutrition Facts showing percent daily values, phrases such as Low in Fat! High in Fiber! and, if you live in the United Kingdom, colorful ‘traffic lights’ that display percentages in five categories – calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars, and salt. All of this information is meant to educate the shopper, to make one understand what a particular food contains and how it will affect one’s body in the approximately six seconds spent looking at food before deciding to buy it.

Nutritionists and food manufacturers believe these labels are important. Indeed, the BMJ recently reported, “Packaging should not only provide nutritional information but should also help people to change behaviour.” Unfortunately it is not working, since North Americans and Britons are more overweight than ever. In response, the Royal Society for Public Health has concocted yet another labeling scheme in hopes of changing eating habits – symbols of “activity equivalent” information. Little stick figures on food packaging would illustrate how many minutes of running, cycling, or swimming are required to burn off the calories contained in a particular item.

These are well-meaning attempts to improve public health, but there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole approach. Aside from the obvious points that most packaged foods requiring labels are probably things we should not be eating in the first place, and that we would not require labels for homemade equivalents of such foods, nor have the same nutritional concerns, this insistence on labeling every single detail perpetuates the very unhealthy sense of guilt that far too often accompanies eating and exercising.

Caroline Jones, who suffered from bulimia for many years, writes for The Guardian:

“I can see that this proposed system is actually part of the problem itself. It colludes with an unhealthy and haranguing white noise, an anxiety that prevails around food nowadays, in every direction: around what we eat and how we perceive what we eat, and therefore by extension how we perceive ourselves.

“Food exercise labels would, for me in those days, have been another guilt-inducing indication of what I viewed as my wanton lack of self-control when I fell, as I invariably did.”

The solution? Get away from the labels and go back to basics. Keep it simple with the information that most people already know: Eat three balanced meals a day, aiming to include a carbohydrate, a fat, and a protein in each meal. That’s it. If you’re hungry in between, have a snack. Don’t cut out any food groups.

When Jones received this common-sense advice from her dietician, she was shocked. Surely it couldn’t be that straightforward, just following “that old poster on the wall of the classroom or the doctor’s surgery with a fish, some potatoes spilling out of a bowl, a loaf of bread with some slices cut away from its end, some unidentified pulses, a bunch of vegetables.”

And yet, it is! You don’t have to understand every single label on packaged food at the supermarket. In fact, you don’t even have to read the nutrition information if you’re choosing unadulterated, healthy whole foods. You don’t have to seek out superfruits from the far corners of the Earth, spend days fermenting foods, embark on lengthy juice cleanses, skip breakfast, attempt interim fasting, or try to eat multiple mini meals in order to be healthy. Nor should exercise – the energizing and life-giving force that it is – feel like guilty payback for not having the willpower to say no to certain foods.

Making things more complicated than they need to be will only make it harder. One Guardian commenter shared the following description:

“In the office where I work, most people fall into one of three categories:
– Those who don't eat breakfast (then end up eating junk from the snack guy mid-morning)
– Those who don't eat lunch (then end up eating junk from the snack guy mid-afternoon)
– Those who eat a ‘healthy’ lunch by cutting out carbs, butter, etc. (then end up eating junk from the snack guy sooner or later)
A handful of us eat three squares a day, cutting out nothing and enjoying everything. The snack guy hates us because we never buy anything from him.”

There comes a point when tuning out the nutritional white noise in the background will place you in a better position to make smart decisions than attempting to make sense of it all. The most magical solution you’re going to find for optimal nutrition lies in balance, simplicity, and consistency. In Jones’ words, “The route to a healthier relationship with food is to cut out the shame, the guilt, the idea of compunction and compensation and come back to what we already know.” A label cannot teach you how to do that, but perhaps your grandmother can.

Tags: Diet | Health

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