Improving your eating habits is a simple way to have a real and lasting impact on your health. Whether you do it to reduce your risk of developing a disease, or to better control an existing condition, making better dietary choices is always beneficial.
Eat fewer ultra-processed foods
According to a study conducted by Health Canada, nearly half of all calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed products. These foods are industrially prepared products that are ready to eat and that contain substances that are not used when preparing foods at home (e.g. food dyes, artificial flavours, emulsifiers, hydrogenated oils, and modified starch). Examples of ultra-processed foods include prepared meals (fresh or frozen), canned soups, meats and fish, chips and baked products.
Ultra-processed foods are usually very high in salt, sugar or fat, while typically containing very little fibre or protein. They are rarely a good dietary choice.
It isn’t easy to avoid these products completely, but you can pay closer attention to the choices you make by reading the list of ingredients and looking at the nutrition facts table.
Take the time to read the nutrition information
There is a lot of useful information in the list of ingredients and nutrition facts table.
In the list of ingredients, contents are listed in decreasing order of weight. New labelling standards require that all sugars be grouped together, with every ingredient in this category included in parentheses. This approach allows you to know if a food contains added sugars, and to see how many there are compared to other ingredients. In order to better understand this change, here are two lists of ingredients for the same product. The original list only shows ingredients in decreasing order of weight, without grouping sugars. The new list shows the same ingredients, but with sugars grouped together (in decreasing order as well).
Original list: Flour, fancy molasses, vegetable oil shortening, brown sugar, liquid whole eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, spices, food colour
New list: Sugars (fancy molasses, brown sugar, sugar), flour, vegetable oil shortening, liquid whole eggs, salt, baking soda, spices, allura red
When we compare the two lists, we can see that the main ingredient in terms of weight is sugar, not flour as suggested in the original list. In addition, we see that the new labelling standards now require that the exact name of the colour used (in this case, allura red) rather than the generic term “food colour.”
Manufacturers will be given a few years to comply with these new labelling standards.
The nutrition facts table is another useful tool to help you make healthy choices when grocery shopping. It presents information based on a reference portion (e.g. 250 ml). The information on nutrients is presented in two ways: in terms of weight and percentage of the daily value. The latter (% DV) is useful to know how much nutrients a food portion contains: 5% is considered low, while 15% or more is considered high.
When you read the chart, pay particular attention to the following items, since we tend to consume too much of them. Ideally, opt for foods that contain 5% or less, and avoid foods that contain 15% or more:
- Fats (especially trans and saturated fats)
The following are beneficial, so aim for foods that contain 15% or more, ideally:
- Dietary fibre
- Minerals (calcium, iron, etc.)
Make your own meals more often
Cooking your own meals with fresh ingredients, avoiding processed foods as much as possible, is the best way to eat healthy. You don’t have to prepare long and complicated recipes for a meal to be healthy and nutritious. A quick and nutritious meal could be something as simple as a vegetable omelet or a salad topped with legumes or leftover chicken.
Take advantage of the weekend to prepare meals that you can eat during the week, or double the quantity of a recipe that freezes well. If you’re disciplined enough, you can even plan your meals for the week or even for the month. That allows you to take your schedule into account, so that you choose meals that you know you can prepare in the amount of time you usually have available on specific days.
Drink more water and less fruit juice
Pure unsweetened fruit juice contains an average of 28 grams of sugar per portion of 250 ml (1 cup). That’s as much sugar as a soft drink! Even though the sugar comes from a natural source, it is still harmful to our health if we have too much of it.
Fruit juice is a healthier choice than soft drinks, but it must be consumed in moderation. It should never be your first choice as a thirst-quencher. Instead, drink a glass of water and eat a fresh fruit. That way, you will get the healthful benefits of whole fruit that you may not find in fruit juice, especially fibre.