Eating healthier in the new year

December 15, 2022

When reading food labels, it is essential to know what the important items are to look for, mainly sugar, fats and salt.

It is important to control your intake of foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium (salt). A moderate amount of sugar, fat or salt adds flavour to your food and may help to meet daily calorie recommendations but in general, should be limited.

Food labels are controlled by regulations stating which components must be mentioned including allergens and sugar, fat and salt content. Reading food labels helps us to make healthier choices.

The nutrition panel on the back or side of a label will provide information per 100g and/or per portion, which means you can compare like-for-like products.

Guidelines to follow to help us to eat healthier:

Sugar (Glucose)

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that provides calories (energy). Sugars can be natural (these are found in fruits, vegetables, plants and dairy products) or commercially produced in large quantities and added to foods, known as ‘free sugars’.

‘Free sugars’ are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, the cook, or the consumer as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

‘Added sugars’, also called ‘free sugars’, should make up less than 10 percent of your total energy intake or your total daily calories.

This is equivalent to 50g, or about 10 level teaspoons but ideally, the amount should be less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits.

5% of total energy intake is equivalent to 25g, or about 5 level teaspoons. Why should we concentrate on decreasing the amount of ‘added sugar’ we eat? Glucose is the basic fuel for our bodies. Unfortunately, too high levels may cause damage to the eyes, kidneys, blood vessels and nerves.

Consuming even a moderate amount of ‘added sugar’ increases the risk of dental cavities. Foods and drinks high in ‘added sugar’ are generally high in calories and can contribute to weight gain.

These sugars even have an influence on blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and decreasing your intake can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

How do we control our intake?

We can control our intake by reading the labels of ingredients and limiting the consumption of foods and drinks containing high amounts of sugar.

These include:

•  Sugar sweetened beverages including fizzy drinks, juice, energy drinks and flavoured water
•  Biscuits, cakes, pastries and sweetened breakfast cereals
•  Chocolate, sweets and sugary snacks
•  Sweetened flavoured milk and yogurts
•  Savoury products can also contain sugar such as tomato sauce and other pre-prepared sauces

You can get an idea if a certain type of food is high in free sugars by looking at the ingredients on the packaging.

Sugar must be stated on the label when added and, if it is near the top of the list, the food item is likely to be high in free sugars.

Other words used to describe sugar that you can look for on labels include cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate/purees, syrup, fructose, glucose, treacle, maltose or sucrose.

Sugar in Fruit

Whole fruit contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and some natural sugar. There are healthy alternatives to foods high in free sugars and fat.

Pure fruit juices are often unsweetened, as the sugar comes naturally from the fruit.

However, free sugars are released during the juicing process, so intake should be limited to a small 150ml glass, once a day. This glass does count towards one of your 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables.

What should our blood glucose level be?

Eating will increase the glucose levels in the blood, therefore blood glucose testing should be done after an overnight fast.

Eating Healthier

Less than 30 percent of your total energy intake should be from fats. Certain fats are better for you while other fats should be limited.

Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream and cheese).

Saturated fat should make up less than 10 percent of daily total energy intake.

Dietary cholesterol is found in animal products as well as produced by the body itself.

Eating a diet high in saturated fat causes the body to produce more cholesterol, resulting in higher blood cholesterol levels.

HDL (high-density lipoprotein) transports cholesterol from the cells back to the liver to be excreted. Therefore, high levels of HDL are actually a ‘good’ thing and are associated with a lower risk for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD).

LDL (low density lipoprotein) carries cholesterol to the cells of the body. When LDL levels are too high, it enters the lining of blood vessels, causing atherosclerosis, which may narrow the arteries and lead to heart attacks or stroke.

Laboratory analysis of the various cholesterol fractions is called a lipogram. A lipogram measures the following lipid (fat) components in blood.

eating healthier In the new year

Trans-fats of all kinds should be avoided. They should be making up less than 1 percent of the total energy intake.

Why should we concentrate on decreasing the amount of fat we eat?

Decreasing the amount of fats we eat will help to prevent weight gain and decrease our risk for diseases of the lifestyle. The first line of treatment for abnormal cholesterol levels is always a change of lifestyle including decreasing your intake of saturated fat and trans-fat. Your intake can be decreased:

•  Steaming or boiling your food instead of frying it when cooking
•  Replacing butter and coconut oil with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, for example, soybean, canola     and sunflower oils
•  Choosing to eat low-fat dairy foods and lean meats as well as removing visible fat from meat
•  Limiting intake of baked and fried foods, including pre-packaged snacks and food such as doughnuts,     cakes, pies, cookies and biscuits that contain industrially produced trans-fats

Salt (Sodium)

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Sodium intake should be less than 2300 mg per day.

This is equivalent to less than 5g of salt per day, roughly one teaspoon. All table salt in South Africa should be iodized.

This was an initiative implemented by the South African government in 1995 to eliminate iodine deficiency, especially in rural areas and to comply with the international goal of universal salt iodization.

Most of the population consumes too much sodium through salt. On average, the population consumes an average of 9 – 12g of salt per day and not enough potassium (less than 3.5g).

High sodium intake and insufficient potassium intake contribute to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Reducing your salt intake to the recommended level of less than 5g per day could improve your life expectancy. People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume.

Many of us add salt to our plates before we even taste the food.

Many bought spices are basically flavoured salt which we add liberally to our meals without considering the salt content. Stock cubes are another item that is very high in salt.

As manufacturers are aware that people are trying to control their salt intake, many are adapting their recipes to reduce the sodium content of their products.

Always check the nutritional labels or information of a product before buying it to see how much sodium is in the product.

A natural way to increase your intake of potassium is by increasing your consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.

How can you decrease your salt intake?

•  Reading product labels and choosing items that have a lower sodium content

•  Limit your consumption of salty snacks

•  Don’t add additional salt to food and avoid high-sodium sauces

•  Limit the amount of salt and high sodium condiments used when cooking and preparing food, for example, soy sauce and salt-containing spices including stock.

Fiber (Vegetable and Fruit Intake)

Vegetable and fruit intake should be between five and seven portions a day. This equates to roughly 500g per day of prepared vegetables and fruit. This amount should exclude potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables may reduce your risk for non-communicable diseases. Fruit and vegetables are very good sources of dietary fiber. Adults should be eating an average of 28g of fiber per day.

The fibre content of items should be shown on the ingredient label. Fruit and vegetables are also good sources of vitamins and minerals.

Ways to improve your fruit and vegetable intake:

•  Always include vegetables in your meals

•  Choose to eat fresh fruit, dried fruit (limit) and raw vegetables as snacks

•  Choose fruit and vegetables that are in season as they should be less expensive and tastier

•  Pick a variety of fruit and vegetables

•  Frozen and canned vegetables act as a good backup when time or storage for fresh items is limited

•  Fruit juice or a fruit-containing smoothie can count as one of your fruit or vegetable portions for the day – limit to 150ml in total per day

shopper grabbing an apple in the store

Promoting consumer awareness with regard to labelling, indicating what items on the label are important to control for a healthy diet and what amount of these items we should be eating to ensure a healthy diet as well as developing school initiatives that encourage children to adopt and maintain a healthy diet are great ways to encourage consumer demand for healthy food.

Ensuring that feeding schemes at schools provide children with healthy meals as well as teaching them cooking skills will help to develop their interest in food and their knowledge about healthy foods. The more knowledge that consumers have, the more empowered they are to make informed healthy eating choices and be able to take control of their health.

People generally choose products depending on their availability and price. People are unaware of the huge health benefits even small changes can make to their dietary intake.

Yours in Wellness
Thandi and the Empact Team

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