Stop Reading Labels {Budget Organic No. 11}

As you probably know by now, this series of 52 weeks of sustainable eating was inspired by  an article in the Jul/Aug 2010 issue of Whole Living Magazine. I’m kind of jumping around in the list, but the tip I picked for this week is “Read Those Labels.” Here’s the quote they used from Marion Nestle, one of the grande dames of sensible eating:

My criteria for choosing packaged foods are: nothing with more than five ingredients, no ingredients I can’t pronounce, nothing artificial, and no cartoons on the package. Why no cartoons? Because those companies are deliberately marketing to children, and I want to discourage that.

GREAT tips, all around.  But I’d like to take it one step further than that and make Sustainable Eating Tip No. 11…

Stop reading labels… and start reading ingredients

I am shamelessly stealing piggybacking this idea from Christina at Spoonfed, who wrote about this idea more than a year ago.

Her suggestion is that the nutritional information that the government and food companies keep trying to make bigger, bolder, easier to read, should really be the least of our concerns; what should matter more are the ingredients, listed in very fine print and in scientific terms many of us cannot understand (let alone pronounce).  That’s really what Marion Nestle’s quote is suggesting.  Notice that she doesn’t say anything about calories, fat, or any other nutrient for that matter.

Because here’s the real poop on nutrition science: we are well equipped scientifically to figure out exactly what nutrients are in a carrot, and we can extract all those nutrients and put them in a pill or fortify some other kind of food with them, but research has shown that the carrot still has beneficial properties that the pill and the fortified foods do not.  Something about eating an actual carrot, with all the nutrients in perfect balance as designed by nature, is just plain better for us than eating carrot-like substances.

So, in an ideal world, we could say: don’t buy anything with a label.  Fresh, whole ingredients like produce, whole grains, pastured meats, etc. often don’t have labels at all.  And believe me, if you stuck to that sort of a rule, you’d be doing pretty danged well.

my groceries

But here’s where things get sticky for me, and people like me: I am battling to get my weight down to a healthy level.  I’m very close to my goal, but that’s often where things get trickiest.  And, because I need the structure and the accountability, I’ve chosen Weight Watchers—a diet program that relies heavily on nutritional data—to help me achieve my goals.

Right now, I have to look at nutrition labels. I have to calculate the Points for each thing I put in my mouth.  I do this because I’ve tried it the other way, with poor results.  I need to be able to evaluate quantitatively how much food I’m consuming to help me reach and maintain my goals.

But I want to evaluate those calories qualitatively as well.  That’s why I don’t buy diet products.  I don’t eat fat-free dairy. (I do eat some low-fat dairy, because frankly, otherwise, there would be no possible way for me to consume it and still have Points left over for much of anything else.)

Honestly, it would be a lot easier for me to lose weight if I did buy the reduced-calorie bread, the fat-free cheese, the light butter replacement.  But I am committed to learning to live at a healthy weight while eating real food.

Can it be done? Sure it can!  That photo above is my weekly grocery shopping that I did, literally about an hour ago.  As you can see, mostly whole foods.  There is a (BPA-free) can of beans and a jar of marinara sauce, because I know I won’t have time to make my own this week.  But both adhere to Marion Nestle’s standards above, so I’m feeling pretty good about it. (Oh, and my beloved tortilla chips; but even they adhere to most of the rules—they DO have a cartoonish tortilla character on the front, though…)

And this isn’t me shopping for pretty stuff just to go with this post; this is how we eat most of the time.

Looking to clean up your shopping cart? I can help!  Click here to find out how.

I’m challenging myself to eat more sustainably over the next year—and documenting the steps I take in this series, inspired by an article in the Jul/Aug 2010 issue of Whole Living Magazine. Want to join me? Leave a comment below and pledge to eat more sustainably this year!

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