Featured Columns

Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health

I just got back from a trip around our local grocery store. And by “around,” I mean I did not venture into the interior aisles. You see, all the good stuff is on the outside in most markets: fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy, and whole grain breads. (Okay, in our store doughnuts are on the outside, too, but mostly it’s all healthy foods).

On the inside is the bad stuff: ice cream, candy, soda, chips, and canned foods with high calories and sodium. There are exceptions, like canned and frozen vegetables and fruits, but even those may have added salt and sugar.

When I’m talking to patients about food choices, I frequently hear them lament that they can’t avoid eating ice cream, cookies, or chips: “I mean, they’re in the freezer and the pantry, and I just can’t stop myself from eating them.” My part in the conversation starts with, “How did that food get into your house in the first place?” I proceed to tell them they failed the “Yield Not to Temptation” test when they put the food in their cart.

In Romans 7:15 and 24, Paul said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Although Paul was talking about sin, not food, he certainly knew about temptation and how hard it is to do the right thing. Still, I bet he would have made it past the Twinkies without buying any.

His definition of “food” is anything your grandmother would recognize as food.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, said there are seven words that, if followed, will lead to a healthy diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You should read this article. His definition of “food” is anything your grandmother would recognize as food, and he says to not eat anything that has more than five ingredients, especially those you can’t pronounce.

“So, how do I recognize what’s healthy and what isn’t?” I’m glad you asked. Each packaged food is required by federal law to have a nutrition table. The table does not show the ingredients, but it gives valuable information about how they will affect your health. 

Let’s look at this sample label for a box of macaroni and cheese. 1) Starting at the top is the serving size the manufacturer expects you to eat. However, that quantity is frequently much less than what people actually eat. For instance, a serving of tortilla chips (my downfall) is usually 11 to 12 chips. My serving size is usually half a bag. Any size bag. You do the math.

2) Next in the table is total calorie content and calories from fat. 3) This is followed by saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. 4) Then, there are the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. For most labels, that’s all. 5) However, some include a table at the bottom showing Percent Daily Value numbers for ingredients, depending on your daily calorie intake.

Now, if you feel like you’re looking at the balance sheet in a church board meeting, let me highlight the details you should focus on. First is serving size. Eat only the serving size noted, or adjust the other things you eat that day to account for the higher intake of calories, fat and carbs. Second is calories per serving. Again, multiply the caloric value by the number of servings you eat. And be honest!

Next, look at the amount of sodium. Limiting sodium is not the universal benefit we medical people once thought. However, if you have even borderline high blood pressure, reasonable limitations may help with control. A “no added salt” diet contains 3,000 to 4,000 mg of salt per day, which is not much of a limitation. However, there are canned foods, such as chili, soup, and others that will get you halfway there with one serving.

The next item is carbohydrates. You’re looking for total carbs, sugar, and fiber. Healthier foods will have high fiber and little sugar. The other entries in the label are interesting but not that important. If you stick to fresh foods, you’ll get plenty of vitamins.

The last tip for healthier shopping is to make a list of items you need, and stick to it. Don’t gaze at the temptations on the shelf and muse about how good they would taste. And never grocery shop when you’re hungry.

There are many online articles on eating and better nutrition. I recommend you check out the DASH diet. It’s a workable plan aimed at blood pressure control. Happy (healthy) shopping!

Dr. Steven Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.

Subscribe to eNews!