I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say, "It's good for you. The label says low fat and there are only 100 calories." In fact, I hear this repeatedly from someone very close to me (I won't call them out in this post). But I will say that it drives me nuts.
Stop just looking at calories and grams of fat.
The label is a good way to get familiar with whether certain foods are good from a nutritional standpoint, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
Let's talk about calories.
Do you think that 500 calories from eating a couple snickers bars is the same as 500 calories from several huge whopping servings of vegetables? Okay good, I think you get the point then. The takeaway from this is that you need to look at MORE than just calorie count. Nutritional value matters.
Fats are not all bad.
In fact, fats are a critical part of a healthy diet. Fat has gotten a bad rep, but the truth is, 25-30% of your diet should come from "good fats." Good fats are fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, along with some saturated as well. You should be balancing your fat intake with about 1/3 of each of these 3 kinds of fat. Trans fat and also hydrogenated fats (fats infused with hydrogen which is used to prolong the shelf life of the food they are in) are bad, so they should be avoided.
The best fats are those that are naturally occurring in nature and not processed. Also, while it's fine to use oils extracted from plants (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil) as long as they are "unrefined" (e.g. whole coconut oil, or extra-virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil), it's generally healthier to get these fats by eating the whole food where it comes from (e.g. olives and coconut). Other great naturally occurring fat sources include avocados, fish, nuts, seeds, and meat or eggs from grass-fed, free-range animals.
Carbohydrates are needed as well for a healthy diet.
Yes, if you are overweight then you should be eating less carbohydrates, especially processed foods. But, it's okay to eat controlled portions of some good starchy carbs. The best bet for the "starchy" carbs is be to eat them around your workouts (when your body will burn through them best). Non-starchy carbs coming from vegetables and fruits are good to eat anytime. Load up on the veggies for sure: 5-7 servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit per day, is a good place to start.
Going to extremes... Is it worth it?
Can you lose weight quickly by giving up carbs? Yes, but that is not a long term fix and will affect you later in your nutrition journey. Good nutrition is a lifestyle, not a 12-week eating plan. Taking out sodium and/or dairy can have a similar effect: When you drop them out of your diet completely, you typically will see quick weight loss (most of the time). But in my opinion, this a bad route to go and always leads to weight gain later.
Sugar is sweet and so are you.
Avoid foods that have synonyms for sugar in the ingredient list. These include sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, maltodextrin, hydrolyzed starch, CORN SYRUP is a big one, honey, cane sugar, agave nectar, sugar beets, high fructose sweetener, maple sugar, and molasses. Try to avoid the above ingredients and stay below 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of food. Even some frozen fruit, bread, dressings, sauces (and more) contain sugar content that's a lot higher than you may expect, so be good about reading the label and ingredients critically.
When looking on the label, don't just look for low calories, low fat, low sugar, low sodium, etc. Instead, get familiar with the ingredients below the nutritional data. Anything that contains a long list of ingredients is probably a good bet to take a pass on. Also, you should be suspicious of any foods that make health claims on the package such as: "added vitamins and minerals", "wholesome or healthy", "no added sugar", "contains real fruit", "natural", "fat free", "low carb", "high protein." These are probably wise to stay away from as well.
Stay on the right path!
At the grocery story, this generally means staying out of the center aisles (yes, I realize they make up most of the store). Instead, follow the perimeter, stopping at the fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and occasionally visiting the aisle for an item like olive oil. It's easy to get sidetracked, so be strong! And when you venture to the center aisles (the belly of the beast!) keep focused on the item on your grocery list and not the glitz and glamour of the unhealthy food that is trying to entice you along the way.
As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment and I would be happy to get back to you.