The Assumption That Everyone Benefits From Reading Food Labels Is Unsafe and Short-Sighted, Says an RD—Here’s Why
"Summer body" talk is factually bullsh*t, but it's near impossible to avoid. Indeed, it's generally right around this time of year that many folks start to be a bit more nutrition-conscious than usual and feel inclined to diligently read food labels. But is this a healthy practice? Should you be doing more or less of this?
Here, I—an anti-diet registered dietitian with years of experience working with folks with many backgrounds and body types—would like to explore the risks and benefits of doing so, along with who may benefit from reading food labels and who would probably be best avoiding this practice.
What are food labels?
First things first: Food labels are found on most food packages in order to list the nutrient profile of the food, including common allergens. They provide a lot of information, including the serving size, servings per container, and calories per serving of the food. They also note the content of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), fiber, added sugar, sodium, and cholesterol.
Lastly, food labels note the content of four vitamins and minerals that American diets tend to lack—vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron. In addition to listing the amounts of these nutrients, they list their percent daily value.
Benefits of reading food labels
As noted above, food labels provide consumers with a lot of valuable information. Reading food labels can increase your knowledge of the nutrition content of a given food and help you make informed food choices, and being mindful of nutrients of concern for Americans as noted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can certainly be health-promoting. These include added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium—all nutrients with recommended maximums that Americans tend to exceed. Fiber, vitamin D, and calcium, meanwhile, are nutrients Americans could generally stand to increase.
Furthermore, if you have a nutrition-related health condition such as high cholesterol, iron-deficiency anemia, or diabetes, then food labels allow you to quickly check the content of nutrients important for disease management. “People with certain medical conditions or taking certain medications may benefit from reading food labels, depending on their care plan," says Krista Linares, MPH, RDN, founder and owner of Nutrition Con Sabor.
Additionally, food labels are a necessary safety accommodation for people with food allergies. "You can easily check the total amount of the nutrient, along with the percent daily value. This can help you maintain a therapeutic diet to manage a health condition or food allergy," says Linares.
Risks of reading food labels
While there are some potential benefits of reading food labels, there are also risks.
First, being overly preoccupied with food labels can lead to disordered eating patterns or can exacerbate existing ones. Whitney Trotter, MS, RDN/LDN, RN, RYT, founder and owner of Bluff City Health LLC, says, “The harm comes in with a consumer having an obsession or a compulsion with reading every food label to ‘avoid’ or ‘limit’ foods they believe are 'bad.'”
This preoccupation with numbers such as calories or carbs can hinder your connection with your internal cues and cravings. “When someone gets hyper-focused on reading food labels, they miss opportunities to listen to their body regarding hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Instead, they depend on a food label or serving suggestion to let them know when they should stop eating,” says Trotter.
If you get too caught up in achieving a “perfect” nutrient balance, it can lead you to start labeling food as “good” or “bad”, which can be a sign of disordered eating. It may lead you to fearing certain foods that you deem “unhealthy” and ignoring your food preferences.
“When someone gets hyper-focused on reading food labels, they miss opportunities to listen to their body regarding hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Instead, they depend on a food label or serving suggestion to let them know when they should stop eating,” says Trotter.
Becoming overly obsessed with the nutrient composition of food can result in a limited view of the benefits of food. Food nourishes us, and that’s not just because of its nutrients. Food has the potential to offer us pleasure, connection, and satisfaction. When we minimize food to just its nutrient profile, we lose out on a plethora of other benefits.
Who might benefit from being mindful of food labels?
Some people may benefit from being aware of certain components of a food label, primarily for nutrition education or chronic disease management. Even for those who may benefit, it is probably not necessary long-term. Once you get the hang of common foods that are aligned or misaligned with your needs, you can make educated choices without having to read the food label in depth.
Populations who may benefit include:
- Those with a nutrition-related health condition: You may benefit from checking the nutrients of concern to promote management of your condition. For example, if you have iron-deficiency anemia, checking the iron content of a food can be helpful to promote a higher iron intake.
- Athletes: You may benefit from checking carbohydrate or protein content to ensure you consume adequate amounts of these nutrients to support optimal performance and recovery.
- Those looking to build awareness of their eating patterns: Checking the food label can help you understand your diet quality. For example, maybe by checking the food label you realize you are using a pasta sauce high in added sugars and switching to one with less added sugars could be just as satisfying but more health-promoting.
Who should not be concerned with reading food labels?
There are certain populations for whom reading food labels could actually be detrimental to their health. These include:
- Those with a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating: Reading food labels can promote further rigidity and preoccupation with numbers like calories.
- Those with a strong foundation in nutrition education: If you are generally knowledgeable about the nutritional profile of different foods, you may not need to get in the weeds of reading food labels. You can make health-promoting, satisfying choices without taking the time or mental energy to regularly read food labels.
- Those who struggle to connect with their bodies’ cues: If you have a hard time noticing your body’s cues and honoring your cravings, overly focusing on the food label can further hinder this connection. You may become overly focused on the nutrient profile of food instead of your body’s cues.
Reading food labels can benefit different people in different ways. It can be a quick scan or an in depth review, and most people don’t need to diligently read every line to promote health.
“For generally healthy adults, it may be more beneficial to think about nutrition in terms of the big picture—like food groups, for instance—rather than getting mired down in the details of the nutrition label,” says Linares.
Keep in mind the nutrients of concern for your body’s needs and try not to moralize your food choices based on their nutrient content. Becoming overly concerned with food labels can be detrimental to health especially for those with disordered eating or an eating disorder. Speak with a healthcare provider about nutrients of concern for you, and pay attention to how reading food labels is impacting you mentally and physically.
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