Easy Guide to Understanding Food Labels When You Have Metabolic Syndrome

By 8th October 2020 October 19th, 2020 No Comments

If you have been told by your doctor that you have metabolic syndrome, it means that you have at least three of the following conditions:

Source: National Skin Centre

Metabolic syndrome (MS) refers to a cluster of metabolic abnormalities that increase your risks of developing various chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A significant area you can do to prevent or reverse MS is by changing your diet to a healthier one, and to lose weight if you are overweight.

Many of these “healthy” and “100% natural” products can be high in calories, salt, fat and sugar.

A nutritionally balanced diet while keeping minimal intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium (salt) and added sugars is recommended. Generally, people eat enough of these and for some, even too much. Instead, choose healthier unsaturated fats and oils in moderate amounts, and consume minimally processed foods (as close to its original forms in nature) as much as possible.

Food labels tell you what is in the food and drinks you are consuming. Every packaged and processed product should have a food label to help you determine its nutrition content. The food labels can help you sieve through misleading claims, shop faster and make better food choices to lower your health risks.

So what do we look out for when buying pre-packaged foods?

Ignore the claims on the packaging

Source: Mather Hospital

Many people base their purchase on the claims manufacturers print on their packaging. Did you know that many of these “low-fat” and ‘lite’ products can be high in fat, sugar, calories and salt, and these in excess can lead to hunger, weight gain and disease? “100% natural” can also contain a lot of sugar, salt and fat – all of which are natural ingredients.

Claims stated by the manufacturers often don’t tell you the whole story. In fact, these health and nutrient can be nutritionally meaningless and misleading.

Another example is the “no added sugar” claim – which does not necessarily mean the product has absolutely no sugar. It just means no extra sugar added to the product during manufacturing. However, the ingredients used can already be naturally high in sugars, such as in canned fruits and fruit juices.

Never evaluate a product based on the claims on the packaging, and never on a single nutrient or by calories alone.

Read the nutrition information panel

Source: Food Navigator

1. Choose products low in saturated fat, trans fat and sodium

Excessive fat and calories in the diet can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of developing chronic illnesses. When shopping for food, use the nutrition information panel to compare and choose products with lower fat, saturated fat and Sodium content.

Use the same reference amount (e.g. sodium content per 100g) when comparing products. Choose products with lower sodium, saturated fat and trans fat more often. 

Some pre-packaged foods are high in sodium (e.g. chips, salted nuts, smoked fish and meat). Others are high in saturated fat (e.g. cured meats, sausages); and trans fat (e.g. biscuits, margarine). Both saturated and trans fat increase bad cholesterol in blood, while trans fat also reduces the good cholesterol.

The goal is to choose foods that are lower in these nutrients, and ideally 0 grams of trans fat.

Keep in mind that manufacturers can list their products as 0 grams if it has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, and claim it ‘trans-fat free’. This means that your food may contain trans fat even if food label says 0 gram. Therefore check the ingredient list (more on this later).

2. Look for higher monounsaturated fat and omega-3 content

Dietary guidelines from various countries are recommending that when monounsaturated fats are eaten in moderation, and consumed in place of saturated or trans fat, can have a beneficial effect in reducing total and LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. These good fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, and (unsalted) nuts.

Omega-3 are essential fatty acids beneficial to our heart health. It reduces blood clotting in arteries and protects against hardening of the arteries. Good sources of this include oily fish, walnut and chia seeds.

3. Check serving size and number of servings per package

Source: HealthHub

Using the above nutrition information panel as an example. The Per Serving column tells you how much nutrients you will get in per serving in which the amount is determined by the manufacturer.

Some suggested serving size can be smaller than what people generally might consume, so pay attention to the serving size and number of servings in that package, and compare it to how much you’re actually eating. Does the amount of food reflect the quantity you would usually have?

To easily compare information across 2 or more products, use the Per 100g column, which tells you how much nutrients you will get in 100 grams of the product.

Always check the ingredient list

Source: WordPress

Claims can be sneaky, but the ingredient list will list out the true contents of what is actually in the food or drink product.

The ingredient list shows the ingredients used in the largest to the smallest amount by weight. The ingredient list is especially useful to check if the product contains trans fat and hidden sugars.

For instance, some manufacturers may claim “trans fat free” on its packaging but if you see “vegetable fat”, “lard”, “margarine”, “shortening”, “hydrogenated”, “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil in the ingredient list, you’ll be sure that these ingredients will still cause your arteries to clog as trans fat do.

Food containing trans fat is found in many processed and ultra-processed items such as 3-in-1 beverages, ‘creamy’ and ‘cheesy’ foods, fried foods, snack foods; baked goods such as pastries, cakes and cookies; products made with vegetable shortening, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils;  and margarine. Limit these products.

Check the ingredients list particularly for hidden sugars and trans fat.

Hidden sugars highlighted

There are many alternative names and forms to sugar which do not spell out as s-u-g-a-r.

Let’s be clear about this: Sugars found in dairy, legumes, fruits and vegetables in their original whole forms are healthy. It’s the sugars that have been removed from their original source and added to food and drinks that we need to be mindful of.  

Try to avoid products with high amounts of sugar. How would you know? Check that sugar or any other sweeteners are not listed in the first 3 to 5 ingredients.

See if you can spot any of these names below on the ingredient list when you go shopping next time!

Source: Diabetes UK

Choose products with higher dietary fibre and wholegrains

Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Whether you are trying to lose weight or lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, dietary fibre is your best friend. Eating a diet high in dietary fibre can help to regulate your digestive system, lower your cholesterol, optimise blood pressure, stabilise blood sugar levels, and reduce your calorie intake.

Including wholegrains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and oats, as well as nuts, seeds, mushrooms, beans in canned or dried forms, and fruits and vegetables in frozen or canned forms in your diet will help to lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Focusing on wholegrains will give you more fibre and nutrients than refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, products made from regular wheat flour).

These phytochemical-rich foods also work together with vitamins and minerals in our diet to reverse metabolic syndrome and reduce our risk of other chronic diseases. 

These foods are good sources of soluble fibre which bind to cholesterol, reduce its absorption and excreted in the stools, thereby lowering our blood cholesterol levels.

Consuming more of these foods, which are naturally low in sodium as well as good sources of potassium and magnesium minerals, help to excrete excess sodium from the body, helping to regulate our blood pressure.

These phytochemical-rich foods also work together with vitamins and minerals in our diet to reverse metabolic syndrome and reduce our risk of other chronic diseases. 

Many products, such as the one above, claim to be wholegrain or wholemeal but the first ingredient in the list is often wheat flour, which is actually refined flour. Check that WHOLE grains, WHOLE wheat, wholemeal are the first or second ingredient listed for the real wholegrain deal. Unbleached flour, enriched high protein wheat flour are all refined flours.

That said, note that Healthier Choice Symbolwith ‘higher in wholegrains’  claim may be awarded to this product as it does contain 20% more wholegrain than the regular version of a similar product. This is why checking the ingredient list is so important – don’t be fooled by product name or claims!

To quickly identify healthier products, look out for the Healthier Choice Symbols in product range such as those below.

Source: HealthHub

Products with the Healthier Choice Symbol has met the nutritional standards set by the Health Promotion Board. These triangular symbols are regulated and awarded to manufacturers whose products meet certain requirements.

Keep in mind that products with Healthier Choice Symbols are shopping guides to healthier products, and should still be eaten moderately.

Source: HealthHub

A sugary drink with Healthier Choice Symbol contain 20% less sugar than its regular counterpart without the symbol. For example, a 250-ml cup of sweetened soy milk drink might contain 18 grams of sugar. The one with the reduced-sugar Healthier Choice Symbol will have 14.4 grams of sugar in the same serving.

One thing to note is that products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per 100 grams of fat are allowed to be labelled as ‘trans-fat free” (NOTE: this is a different claim than the manufacturer’s own claims!). This means that consuming large amounts of these can still significantly contribute to the trans fat intake, so make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list!

The bottom line is, the Healthier Choice Symbol helps you to pick healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.

Look for credible source and personalised guidance to help you

It can be quite overwhelming to sieve out credible information and distinguish them among the good-will advice from family and friends. I hope the article has broken down and explain these features so they make sense to you.

If you want further information or need more tailored guidance to reverse your metabolic syndrome, our friendly dietitians and health coach at MyDoc can help you navigate your way to better health and quality of life. Find us here.

Jacqueline Joose

Jacqueline Joose

Jacqueline is an Accredited Dietitian (APD, ADS) with Dietitians Australia and Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, and also a Certified Health Coach, CHC from the National Society of Health Coaches in the USA. She has worked across a wide range of clinical wards in major hospitals in Australia, as well as in the areas of private nutrition practice, food service management, community and public health nutrition. ​Back in Singapore, Jacqueline has since then ventured into the digital health space as a dietitian, and honed additional health coaching skills in the specialised medical fields of Lifestyle Medicine and Preventive Cardiology. On a personal level, Jacqueline is someone who eats to live - a motto all foodies live by. She doesn’t advise strict dieting or eating boring, tasteless foods to improve health. Jacqueline believes that the best outcomes come through balance, allowing clients to achieve their goals while still enjoying the foods they love. Her favourite part of the job is seeing the “light bulb” switch on when patients make that connection, and the satisfied glow on their faces, brought about by health improvements through diet and lifestyle changes.

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