Tips for buying packaged food in a balanced lifestyle

A study by Rosemary Marchese

Physiotherapist, Fitness Author and International Speaker

With all the ‘eat this’ and ‘don’t eat this’ advice by every self-proclaimed expert in nutrition that’s out there, it’s easy to understand the confusion surrounding healthy eating. Let’s face it, not even the experts agree! In the quest for a ‘balanced’ approach to life, it’s sometimes necessary to reach for the packaged food items without feeling like you are heading to the jury for trial.

I know, as a busy mom of three active kids, that it’s important for my family to be healthy most of the time. Those times when I do pick up a ‘packet of food’, I like to keep my decision-making strategy pretty simple. While it’s great to have some treats from time-to-time there are ways to try to have, what I would call, a ‘better quality treat’ than to consume something that barely resembles food at all when broken down.

The list below has been derived to give you a guide for those days that you do need to go for a quick and convenient option. It’s highly unlikely that any packaged food will be able to tick all the recommendations below but at least when you’re informed, you are making the decision that is right for you.

7 tips for buying packaged food while trying to keep things relatively ‘healthy’:

1. Watch for added sugar

If sugar is listed high on the ingredient list then it’s likely the stuff is packed with sugar. Sugar is generally used to sweeten and help gives flavour to packaged food, especially if it claims to be low fat.

2. Beware of ‘organic’

Hear me out. I love organic produce but when it comes to packaged stuff I am a little more skeptical. For example, if there’ a chocolate biscuit made of ‘organic flour’ then it’s still a biscuit. While you may still decide to eat the biscuit (which is fine from time to time) I would encourage you to check the ingredients to see what they are NOT telling you.

3. Minimise the added nasties

Watch for nasties such as vegetable gum and food acids. Vegetable gum is a food thickener often added to our treats, such as icy poles. When it’s added to a beverage the fluid is absorbed and makes it thicken. It continues to hold water even during digestion, which may decrease the water available to the body.

Food acids are also often added to food. For example, food acid (330) is a citric acid found naturally in fruit and vegetables. Commercially, it’s used as a preservative. You do find it in juices and in lots of fruits and vegetables but in packaged food there is a catch – it’s produced from sugar, not fruit.

4. Avoid ‘foods’ with ingredients you don’t know!

Rather than trying to remember what’s what in the ingredient list, I recommend staying away from products with ingredients that seem completely foreign to you. It’s likely that they are nasty chemicals that can’t be doing anything good for you!

5. Be aware of heavily processed seed oils

While this is an area needing further research it’s not a bad idea to steer clear of food items packed with seed oils. Often these are cheaper and nastier options for food companies to include than better quality ingredients.

6. Know your brands

Once you have done a bit of research into your packaged food choices it’s a good idea to know your brands well. That way you can make informed decisions about what you are willing to compromise on and what you are not.

7. Make your decision, enjoy and move on

This one is most important to me. If I decide to have some chocolate (which I do!) then I am doing that fully aware of what I am eating and allow myself that. I savour it, enjoy it and move on. I don’t need to announce it to the world nor go on a 40km run the next day to punish myself. I literally just ‘move on’.

It’s all about balance. In fact, I often refer to a life-blend. We can’t go for a 50-50 when it comes to healthy and unhealthy eating. It needs to be weighted much more in favour of healthy eating to be prioritising our health. But let’s be realistic…if you do need to go for a quick option, make sure you are aware of it’s ingredients and are making a conscious decision that you are okay with.

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