Chapter / Rule 8 - Learn to read food labels so you know what you are eating
I'm all for knowing what you're eating. Obviously if you're looking to lose weight, having an idea of how many calories you're getting, or how much protein you've had is very important information. And if you're feeling extra frisky, knowing that you're getting the Recommended Dietary Allowance of essential vitamins and minerals is pretty swell. (I'll admit though, I don't do that last one at all.)
So, at first anyway, it seems me and Harper agree. Knowing how to read a food label can be a helpful tool to keeping your weight in your control. However, I apparently have a lot more faith in humanity in general to figure out how to read nutrition labels that Harper says are:
"frequently confusing - graphically busy, laden with irrelevant claims and detail, sometimes almost impossible to find on the container."
Yeah, just look at all those graphics and irrelevant claims.
Also containers are typically only so big. I'm not sure how it could ever be tough for someone to find a nutrition label on it if it has one. I'm envisioning something like a black-and-white scene in an infomercial for a useless product of someone having way too hard a time doing a mundane activity.
Anyway, Harper then goes on to cite a couple studies about how people who read nutrition labels eat more fiber and nutrients and less calories and blah blah blah blah correlation without causation people who read nutrition labels are more likely to be concerned about their health and make better food choices etc etc etc.
Let's take a look at what Harper says are the "absolutely fundamental" things to understand when reading labels:
Serving Size / Number of Servings
I definitely agree with this. I can't tell how many times I read the calories on an item and thought "not bad" only to realize it was one of three servings. How one cookie can get away with being technically 3 servings, I don't know. Speaking of the ridiculousness of serving sizes, allow me this opportunity to share one of my favorite stand-up bits:
The single most important thing when it comes to losing weight. Probably why it's the easiest thing to find to read on the label. I've got no complaints about this one. But just because something is dense in calories doesn't mean you can't eat it, even if you're looking to lose weight.
Probably the second most important thing when it comes to fat loss. Assuming you're looking to retain your muscle, that is. (Probably something you'd want to do)
I mean, I guess it's cool to know how much sugar is in whatever you're buying. It's probably surprising to see how much is in some products. The more sugar, the quicker it will likely digest, the less satiating it will probably be. But, again, if you're looking to lose weight, you can still eat this if it's within the more important calorie range. That's certainly more realistic than Harper's advice to not buy it if it's a main ingredient. Guess we all should stop eating apples. (Oh wait, you're supposed to eat those Every. Single. Day. I'M SO CONFUSED HARPER.)
Roughly 76% sugar here. (Well, 100% if you consider the fact that all carbohydrates become simple sugars eventually) Image from prevention.com
Unless you have a blood pressure issue, there isn't much of a reason to be super concerned with how much sodium you're taking in. There are much more important things to concern yourself over if you're struggling to lose fat. Sodium may increase your water retention which will make the scale number fluctuate annoyingly, but that's really not the best metric to use, as I'm sure you've heard a million times. Drink enough water and you'll be fine.
Fat / Trans fats
I like that Harper says fat is not a bad thing - there is still a sense out there of the fat-phobia left over from the 90's. Fat doesn't make you fat. It seems people are taking baby steps though and aren't completely ready to relinquish the fear of fat with certain restrictions: "Unsaturated fats are good, saturated fats bad." It's time to let go of that last bit of fat fear: saturated fats are fine. Eat red meat and full-fat dairy if you like them. You won't clog your arteries or get heart disease from them, it's okay.
However I can't completely say all fats are fine either - there is evidence that trans fats may be harmful in certain amounts. However I'm not sure I'll ever call them 'demon-spawn' as Harper does.
As well, Harper says not to eat anything that is over 20% fat calories. I'm sure he doesn't mean one shouldn't have oil or most nuts, but he should really specify that.
Yep, carbs are a thing. They have calories. If you eat the kind with more fiber, vitamins and minerals, you'll get more fiber, vitamins and minerals if that's your thing. However Harper has a whole list of kinds of carbs that you cannot eat to lose weight. Did you know that you absolutely can't have cornmeal or potato starch and stay slim?
Generally the more fiber in an item, the more full it will make you feel and as Harper says, probably the less processed it is. I really enjoy feeling full, so eating vegetables and fruits and Quest Bars and Arctic Zero (completely processed foods that are also completely filling and awesome) is a good idea for me. However, I also eat lots of things that don't have a ton of fiber, like cake. Mmmm cake.
Net carbs is basically this on a nutrition label:
Total Carb grams - Fiber grams = Net carbs
This is because fiber is indigestible, but still counts towards the carb amount on the nutrition label. I mentioned in my old blog about how food companies are already allowed to reflect this fact in their total calories. So this is more just a fun fact, not something you really need to pay attention to.
The Ingredient List
Ingredient lists are super helpful when it comes to figuring out exactly what you're putting in your body. Whether or not long ingredient lists necessarily mean something is bad for your health though is not cut and dry. There are heavily processed products that can absolutely support a healthy, lean body. (See Quest Bars, Arctic Zero and the wide variety of protein powders available.) And here's one quote I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent about:
"For one, if it's got that many ingredients, it's probably incredibly processed - dense in chemicals that Mother Nature never intended you to eat."
Please, what exactly did Mother Nature intend for us to eat? Did she intend for us to eat Quaker oatmeal for breakfast everyday? Did she intend for us to domesticate pigs and chickens and eat bacon and eggs regularly? Did she intend for us to turn the unrecognizable wild banana into the domesticated kind we see in supermarkets today? Did she intend for people to ever drink tea, or eat horse meat? Is there any kind of of force, or power, or spirit that has dictated what is 'good' and 'bad' for us, or is it not completely up to us?
Anyway, sorry for that rant, but for some reason it's started to grind my gears whenever people say we weren't 'meant' to eat a certain kind of food item.
I'm going to make a confession. I am not in any way qualified or knowledgeable in this area to make a good analysis of the chemicals in the list of things to avoid by Harper:
- Food dyes
- Polysorbate 60
However, if you're interested, I wouldn't take the book at its word. Ask your friendly local food safety professional if you want a second opinion.
The "Percent of Daily Values" Section
Helpful section if you're looking to make sure you're getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. Honestly though, if you're eating a diet that contains fruits, vegetables and animal products of some kind, you're probably getting enough. Typically your local, fresher, grass-fed type will contain more, but that can get a bit pricey.
Moral: If you're looking to lose weight, understanding what is in your food is important. The most important component is the calorie content, followed by protein. After that things tend to get a bit muddy and open to personal interpretation and preference.
Chapter / Rule 9 - Stop guessing about portion size and get it right - for good
Harper touches on one point that I find interesting about the culture of food in recent years, especially in America. Portion sizes have gotten much larger - he gives the statistic that at-home meals have increased by 20 to 30 percent over the past 20 years. (20 to 30 percent increase in what he doesn't say. Calories? Volume? Plate size?) Regardless, the size options available at fast food places have certainly increased, and perhaps our expectation of appropriate food volume has with it.
This chapter has 2 techniques to control your portion sizes:
1) Forced Portion Control
Basically the advice of have snacks already partitioned in small sizes so that if you're in a bind you can quickly grab something that isn't super calorie-dense. I can get on board with that - it makes counting your calories real easy if you're into that kind of thing too.
However, I know that if there are easy things to snack on around the kitchen, there is a high chance that I will snack on them. So, whatever works for you.
Described as "taking advantage of high-fiber, low-calorie foods that fill you up." Basically saying, vegetables have very few calories and are very filling, so you could eat a whole plate, be absolutely stuffed, and still not have eaten much in the way of calories. I like this idea, and I do it often. Here is a favorite dinner side dish:
- Take a shit ton of broccoli florets and lay them on a pan
- Spray with olive oil
- Top with seasoning salt, garlic powder and pepper
- Put in oven on 415 for 15-20 minutes until they're basically totally burnt (Okay, this step is just because I'm weird and like my vegetables burnt to a crisp)
This is paired wonderfully with some responsibly-raised, grass-fed, free-roaming, anti-biotic and hormone-free beef, or cake.
Moral: Controlling your portion sizes is just another way to control your caloric intake. If you'd prefer a big, huge meal at one point during the day or several small meals throughout the day both are okay. Oh, and vegetables are filling.
Chapter / Rule 10 - No more added sweeteners, including artificial ones
"You won't psychologically expect supersweet when I'm done with you."
That sounds terrifying.
"You don't have the physiological ammo to "just have a little"."
That sounds inaccurate.
Here's an anecdote. Take it with a grain of salt:
Before I was doing the "If It Fits your Macros" part of my experiments, I tried avoiding things like chocolate and sweets on a regular basis. When I did have them, they were in huge quantities I couldn't get enough of. I scoffed at the idea of anything in 'moderation' - in fact I hated that term. I couldn't fathom people not desiring huge quantities of sweets if they ever got their hands on some.
Enter IIFYM. I would have bits of chocolate or sweets on a daily basis. Shortly after, 2 squares of dark chocolate was enough. I could eat that and be satisfied. I think I 'get' what people meant by moderation now.
So, perhaps you don't feel like you don't have the 'physiological ammo' for moderation because you...don't eat stuff in moderation.
Anyway, that's my 2 cents on that subject. We don't have any studies to analyze here about whether or not that's backed up with data.
Harper, going off of a previously de-bunked idea of certain foods causing weight gain more than others independent of their caloric content, says that sugar will make you gain weight more than fat will. Yes, over the decades our consumption of carbohydrates (and thus, sugar) has gone up, but much more importantly our consumption of just straight-up calories has gone up even more.
He then states his plan is based around low-sugar fruits. Uhh...what is a low-sugar fruit, exactly? Look at the nutrition for an apple like I listed above. Same thing for berries. Low relative to what?
Any splenda or other artificial sweeteners in your coffee or tea? NOPE DO THAT AND YOU'LL JUST BINGE ON TWINKIES LATER BECAUSE YOU'RE ADDICTED TO SUGAR. Or something like that.
Moral: Sugar usually means a less-satiating food. (Exceptions, obviously include things like fruit.) Avoiding sugar typically means you're avoiding excess calories, which is what leads to weight loss. However, you are fully capable of exercising moderation if you so choose.