Nutrition-A Guide For Novices
NUTRITION-Whats It All About?
You often see a panel on food labels giving the nutritional breakdown of the food.
Manufacturers are required by law to give this information if the label also makes a nutritional claim such as low fat or high fibre. Sometimes manufacturers give this information voluntarily.
When nutritional information is given on a label, it must show the amount of each of the following in 100 g or 100 ml of the food:
- energy (in kJ and kcal)
- protein (in g)
- carbohydrate (in g)
- fat (in g)
plus the amount of any nutrient for which a claim has been made.
Sometimes you will also see amounts per serving, but this must be in addition to the 100 g or 100 ml breakdown.
These terms and some others you might see are explained below.
This is the amount of energy that the food will give you when you eat it. It is measured either in calories (kcal) or joules (kJ).
The body needs protein to grow and repair itself. Most adults in the UK get more than enough protein for their needs. Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, milk and dairy foods, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts.
Most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar. We should all be trying to eat fewer sugary foods, such as sweets, cakes and biscuits, and drink fewer soft drinks.
Different types of sugar
Sugars occur naturally in food such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugars. It is food containing added sugars that we should be cutting down on.
Sugar is added to many types of food, such as:
- fizzy drinks and juice drinks
- sweets and biscuits
- cakes, pastries and puddings
- ice cream
Food and drinks containing lots of added sugars contain calories but often have few other nutrients, so we should try to eat these types of foods only occasionally.
Sugary foods and drinks can cause tooth decay, particularly if you have them between meals. This includes fruit juice and honey.
The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But, when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, much like added sugars, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently.
Fruit juice is still a healthy choice, and counts as one of the five portions of fruit and vegetables we should be having every day, but it is best to drink fruit juice at mealtimes.
Tips for cutting down
It's a good idea to try to cut down on foods and drinks that contain lots of added sugar, such as sugary fizzy drinks, sweets and some biscuits. This will help to keep our teeth healthy. Many foods that contain added sugar can also contain lots of calories so eating less of these foods may help with weight control.
If you are trying to cut down on sugar, these tips might help you cut down:
- Have fewer sugary drinks and snacks.
- Instead of sugary fizzy drinks and juice drinks, go for water or unsweetened fruit juice (remember to dilute these for children). If you like fizzy drinks then try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
- Instead of cakes or biscuits, try having a currant bun, scone or some malt loaf with low-fat spread.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks, or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether.
- Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup, treacle or honey on your toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana, or low-fat cream cheese instead.
- Check food labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar or go for the low-sugar version.
- Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes. It works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
- Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
- Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals rather than those coated with sugar or honey.
Checking food labels
When you are checking food labels, you can use the following as a guide to work out if a food is high or low in sugar.
Look for the 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)' figure in the nutrition information panel. The panel is usually found on the back of food packs.
High is more than 15g sugars per 100g
Low is 5g sugars or less per 100g
If the amount of sugars per 100g is in between these figures, then that is a medium level of sugars.
Remember that the amount you eat of a particular food affects the overall amount of sugars you will get from it.
The sugars figure in a nutrition panel is the amount of total sugars in the food. It includes sugars from fruit and milk as well as the sugars that have been added to the food.
So a product containing lots of fruit or milk will be a healthier choice than one that contains lots of added sugars, even if the two products contain similar amounts of total sugars. You can tell if the food contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients list (see below).
Sometimes you will only see a figure for 'Carbohydrates', and not for 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)'. The 'Carbohydrates' figure will also include starchy carbohydrates so you can’t use it to work out if a food contains a high, medium or low amount of sugars. But you can still check the ingredients list to get a feel for whether the food is high in added sugars.
Traffic Light Labelling
Some foods have traffic light labels on the front of the pack. This means you can see at-a-glance if the food you're looking at has high, medium or low amounts of sugars in 100g of the food.
Red = High
Amber = Medium
Green = Low
You can get a feel for whether a product is high in added sugars by looking at the ingredients list.
Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient first. Watch out for other words that are used to describe added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch and invert sugar, corn syrup and honey. If you see one of these near the top of the list, you know that the product is likely to be high in added sugars.
Some foods that you might not expect to have sugar added to them can contain lots, for example some breakfast cereals and cereal bars. Other foods can be higher in added sugar than you might expect, such as tins of spaghetti or baked beans.
Keeping teeth healthy
To help keep teeth healthy, as well as brushing teeth regularly and visiting the dentist, we should cut down on added sugars. These are the sugars found in fizzy drinks, juice drinks, sweets, cakes and jam. It's best to stick to having these kinds of foods and drinks at mealtimes.
It's also important to avoid sipping sugary drinks or sucking sweets too often. This is because the longer the sugar touches your teeth, the more damage it can do.
There are two types of carbohydrates that the body turns into energy: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are often listed on food labels as 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)'. This includes added sugars and the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.
Complex carbohydrates are also called starchy foods. Starchy foods include bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes. Try to choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can. We should get most of our energy from complex carbohydrates (or starchy foods) rather than those containing sugar.
Sometimes you will only see a total figure for carbohydrates on food labels. This includes the carbohydrates from starchy foods and from simple carbohydrates.
Starchy foods such as bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes are a really important part of a healthy diet. Try to choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can.
How Much Do You Need
Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat. Most people should be eating more starchy foods. So if you want to eat healthily try to think about the proportions of the different foods you eat in a day.
Starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, these foods contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.
Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but they contain less than half the calories of fat. You just need to watch out for the added fats used for cooking and serving, because this is what increases the calorie content. If you're concerned about your weight, wholegrain varieties are an especially good choice.
'Low-carbohydrate' diets have had a lot of publicity recently. These diets usually involve cutting out most starchy foods.
Cutting out starchy foods, or any food group, can be bad for your health because you could be missing out on a range of nutrients. Low-carbohydrate diets tend to be high in fat, and eating a diet that is high in fat (especially saturated fat from foods such as meat, cheese, butter and cakes) could increase your chances of developing coronary heart disease.
These diets may also restrict the amount of fruit, veg and fibre you eat, all of which are vital for good health.
So, rather than avoiding starchy foods, it's better to try and base your meals on them, so they make up about a third of your diet.
If you're concerned about your weight see the Healthy weight section.
Many food labels give figures for the product's fat content. Some food labels also break the figures down into these different types of fat: saturates, monounsaturates and polyunsaturates.
Saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels, which increases the chance of developing heart disease.
Monounsaturates and polyunsaturates are both types of unsaturated fat. These don't raise blood cholesterol in the same way as saturated fats and provide us with the essential fatty acids that the body needs.
Most people know that we should be cutting down on fat. But it's even more important to try to replace the saturated fat we eat with unsaturated fat. Having some fat in our diet helps the body absorb some vitamins. Fat is a good source of energy and it provides essential fatty acids that the body can't make itself. But eating lots of fat can make you more likely to put on weight because foods that are high in fat are also high in energy (calories). And eating a diet that is high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, over time, which increases your chance of developing heart disease. So it’s important to try to eat less fat and go for foods that are rich in unsaturated fats instead of saturated.
Eating a diet that is high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, over time.
This increases your chance of developing heart disease. So it’s a good idea to reduce your intake of saturated fat. You can do this by:
- eating less of foods that are high in saturated fat
- choosing options that are lower in saturated fat
- going for unsaturated fats instead of saturated
Foods that are high in saturated fat
Foods that are high in saturated fat include:
- fatty cuts of meat and meat products such as sausages and pies
- butter, ghee and lard
- cream, soured cream, crème fraîche and ice cream
- cheese, particularly hard cheese
- cakes and biscuits
- some savoury snacks
- some sweet snacks and chocolate
- coconut oil, coconut cream and palm oil
There are two main types of fat found in food – saturated and unsaturated. Having unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat can help lower blood cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids that the body needs.
So it’s a good idea to eat foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat, as part of a healthy diet.
Foods that are rich in unsaturated fat
These foods are all rich in unsaturated fat:
- oily fish
- nuts and seeds
- sunflower, rapeseed, olive and vegetable oils, and spreads made from these
Fibre helps prevent constipation, piles and bowel problems. Good sources of fibre include some breakfast cereals, kidney beans, mixed unsalted nuts, wholemeal bread, baked beans, fruit and vegetables.
Most people don't eat enough fibre. Foods rich in fibre are a very healthy choice, so try to include a variety of fibre-rich foods in your diet. These are all rich in fibre: wholegrain bread, brown rice, pasta, oats, beans, peas, lentils, grains, seeds, fruit and vegetables.
Fibre is only found in foods that come from plants. There are two types of fibre: insoluble and soluble.
This is the fibre that the body can't digest and so it passes through the gut helping other food and waste products move through the gut more easily.
Wholegrain bread, brown rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals and fruit and vegetables all contain this type of fibre.
Insoluble fibre helps to keep bowels healthy and stop constipation. And this means we are less likely to get some common disorders of the gut. Foods rich in this sort of fibre are more bulky and so help make us feel full, which means we are less likely to eat too much.
This fibre can be partially digested and may help to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood. Particularly good sources of soluble fibre include oats and pulses such as beans and lentils.
Lots of food labels tell you how much salt is in 100g of the food. Sometimes they only give a figure for sodium, or sometimes they might give both.
Sodium x 2.5 = salt
If you know how much sodium is in a food, you can work out roughly the amount of salt it contains by multiplying the sodium level by 2.5.
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which triples your risk of developing heart disease or stroke.
Are you having too much salt? You might not think so. But every day 26 million adults in the UK eat too much salt. You could be eating too much without realising because about 75% of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy. If you want to cut down, the good news is there are plenty of simple things you can do. Most foods contain some salt. But it’s the foods that are high in salt we need to watch out for because eating these can make it very easy to have too much salt. This is why it's important to choose foods that are lower in salt, when you can.
Some foods are almost always high in salt because of the way they are made – you can still enjoy them, but try to have these in smaller amounts, or eat them less often.
With some foods, such as bread and breakfast cereals, it’s because we eat a lot of them that they contribute a lot of salt to our diets and not that they’re necessarily high in salt. For these foods, and for foods such as pasta sauces and tomato ketchup, there can be a really big difference between different types and brands. So next time you’re shopping, take the time to compare the salt levels on a few similar products. And always try to choose the ones lower in salt. Making small changes like this can make a big difference to how much salt you eat, especially if it’s a food you eat a lot of.
Why Cut Down On Salt Cutting down on salt will lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke and heart diseases.