Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fear Of The Unlabeled

I recently had a discussion with one of my friends, and an interesting topic arose concerning eating healthy and controlling calorie intake (I have such interesting conversations, don't I?)  He mentioned that he was afraid of eating foods that didn't have nutritional labels associated with them, for fear of consuming too large an amount of calories, or other bad stuff (like trans fat) without ever knowing it.  I too used to have this fear, big-time.  It's a common one.  Heck, if you don't know what's in your food, how are you supposed to know if it's healthy?  It's a legitimate quandary, and I decided right then and there that I would write my next article on that very subject, namely, how to get over the fear of unlabeled food.

Firstly, I'd like to say one thing:  YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE AFRAID OF EVERY FOOD THAT DOESN'T HAVE A LABEL.  Why not?  Because some of the healthiest stuff in the entire WORLD doesn't have a nutritional label on it.  For instance, go and pick yourself an apple.  Does it come with a nutritional label pasted to its skin?  Nope.  Does this mean it's not healthy, and you shouldn't eat it?  NOT AT ALL!  In fact, you'd do well to eat that apple right at that very instant and start benefiting from the enormous amounts of nutrients it contains.  The same goes for fruits, nuts, and vegetables.  In their natural form, there's no way they could be bad for you.  Just absolutely no freaking way.  In fact, almost every single container of organic food you can buy at your local health food distributor will NOT have a nutritional label, and yet those foods will do so much more good for you than any sort of boxed crud you could get at any old grocery store.  So if you see a bowl of apples sitting there in the cafeteria, or a bucket of tomatoes at the salad bar, don't avoid them.  Dig in.  You won't get fat, you won't have a heart attack, and you WILL make your body healthier.

But that's a no brainer...right?  Yeah, I thought so.  So what about the more complicated stuff?  Let's look at the situation I'm regularly in when I go to my school's cafeteria.  They make a LOT of healthy food, and a LOT of crappy food as well.  And rarely is any of it labeled correctly (though they are trying, I'll give them that.)  But do I stress?  Not one bit, because I know what to look for.  That means I can look at a plate of sauteed vegetables, and tell if the cooks have used too much oil, or if there's a sugary glaze overtop of them to make them more appetizing.  And this is what you need to do.  With complex dishes, you need to use a combination of past knowledge (what have you eaten in the past similar to this, and how was it made?), and a discerning eye for ingredients (know what oil looks like, know what fried foods look like, and determine what ingredients make up the entire dish.)  If it's a relatively plain dish, as in no glaze or anything like that, you can assume that those veggies aren't any more caloric than the raw ones at the salad bar.  If it's a stir fry, I still wouldn't be worried, you can easily account for a few extra (healthy) calories and still have a good meal.  Heck, a little cooking oil will give you some healthy fat in your diet.  If those veggies are rolling around in sloppy meat and brown sauce, skip them, as you know they've been too doctored up to really be beneficial for you.  It's not a hard concept, go with stuff that looks more plain, or more sparingly dressed.

What about meat?  Well that can be a little more daunting, but still not a horrible situation.  Breaded or fried meats are generally a no-no, as they'll have many more calories (sometimes almost double the plain variation), and a lot of bad fats that you know won't do you or your figure any good.  Heavily sauced meats are generally in the same boat, and you should avoid things smothered in BBQ sauce or a sugary marinade.  If the meat is only spiced (seasoning baked in), it could be just fine, or it could have excess sodium.  That one's really a toss up, but a little salt every now and then will do no harm.  In my opinion though, the plainer the meat, the better.  Go for the grilled or poached chicken, or a medium portion of turkey/beef.  I'd stay away from pork and fattier cuts of beef, as they'll be the secret killers, ESPECIALLY if they're unlabeled.  Fish is an AWESOME choice as long as it's not fried.

Also, you have to know your portions.  6 oz of meat is a decently thick piece about the size of your palm.  6oz of any sort of plain meat ranges from 120-250 calories, based on whether it's chicken, pork, fish, steak, etc.  Knowing portions is just as important as knowing ingredients just by looks.  If the cuts are too big, slice it in half and throw out the rest (or give it to your friend who loves meat.)  Not hard, right?

Another reason NOT to be afraid of unlabeled food is as follows:  Just because a food has a label, doesn't mean it's healthy.  Just 'cause you know how many calories are in an Oreo doesn't mean eating them is a healthy choice.  Heck, have you seen a Lean Cuisine package?  I picked one up the other day, and my jaw nearly dropped open at how many chemical ingredients were in that thing.  Low calorie?  Sure.  Healthy?  NOT EVEN CLOSE!!!  You'd be better off eating a piece of meat that you had no freaking clue how many calories were in rather than one of those things.  Ridiculous.

So here's the bottom line.  If you want to eat as healthily as possible, you have to move away from labels.  The healthiest stuff on earth is unlabeled, and you have to deal with it.  I'm pretty sure most of what I eat doesn't have nutritional labels on it, and I'm seeing fantastic results in both strength an leanness as I continue to train.  Don't be a label addict.  It'll only limit your diet to the point where you're absolutely stifled when it comes to mealtime.  If you're a serious addict, you can always look up nutritional information online after (or before) the meal.  But seriously, don't stress.  It'll only cause tension, hormone imbalance, and in this case, hunger.  Remember one thing:  calories aren't all that matters.  Nutrients are where it's at.

Know your portions, know your ingredients, and as always, GOOD LUCK!


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