Ask the Expert: Smart Choices?

Q: I’m seeing the Smart Choices label on more and more packaged foods these days. What does that label mean and am I really making a smart choice by choosing those foods that carry it?

A: The Smart Choices Program is a universal nutritional ranking system designed to help consumers identify the healthiest foods with a logo that appears on the front of food packaging. It is the first industry-wide front-of-packaging initiative to identify healthy food choices. Specific qualifying criteria are used across 19 product categories and attention is paid to both nutrients that should be limited, such as sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, as well as nutrients that should be encouraged, such as fiber and calcium.

Consumers are justifiably confused by all the nutrition claims and information on food packages, but it is not clear whether the Smart Choices Program will help eliminate confusion or just add to the problem. Here are some of the concerns:

  • The approach was developed and selected by food manufacturers who have a desire to sell food and put their products in the best possible light
  • The program might cause consumers to look at foods as “good” (with the label) or “bad” (without the label). This goes against the basic principle of a healthful, balanced diet in which all foods can fit in moderation.
  • The program may give consumers one more excuse to not pay attention to the most important (and truthful) parts of a food package – the food label and the ingredient list.
  • The qualifying criteria are broad and may not apply to everyone in the same way, especially people that have health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
  • The system is not foolproof because foods such as Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes are eligible for the Smart Choices label. These cereals get 40% of their calories from sugar and would not be recommended by most dietitians!

The best way to make an informed decision about your food choices is to educate yourself about how to read a food label and ingredient list. This allows you to make the choices that best fit your needs and gives you the flexibility to balance your choices.  — Karen Bryla McNees, Ed.D., R.D.

Ask the Expert: New recommendations for cutting sugar intake

Q: I recently read that the American Heart Association recommends cutting sugar intake dramatically – no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily for women, and for men no more than 9 teaspoons. What does a teaspoon of sugar equal in calories or grams? What are some easy ways to cut back?

A: While not directly related to heart disease, added sugars do contribute to overweight and obesity. Foods with added sugars tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients and often replace more nutrient rich foods (drinking soda instead of milk).  Six teaspoons of sugar equals 100 calories and 25 grams (equal to ½ cup of ice cream) while 9 teaspoons equals 150 calories and 38 grams (equal to one can of soda). To put this in perspective, consider that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons, or 355 calories, of added sugars per day!

To limit added sugars, you have to know how to identify them, and this can be a little tricky. Food labels are required to list “total sugars” but this does not distinguish between added sugars and naturally-occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit and milk. To spot added sugars, go directly to the ingredient list and look for added sugars. The higher up on the ingredient list those sugars appear, the more added sugar the product contains. Some common added sugars are:

  • fructose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, or anything ending in “–ose”
  • brown sugar
  • corn sweetener, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup
  • fruit juice concentrate, fruit puree
  • honey
  • syrup, malt syrup
  • molasses
  • sugar, raw sugar

More smart tips for limiting added sugars:

  • Limit consumption of the top culprits for added sugars: soft drinks, ready to drink teas, baked goods, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, cereals, and granola bars
  • Reduce added sugar gradually.It’s difficult and impractical to erase all sugar from your diet in one clean sweep, so gradually reduce the amount you consume. Over time, you may find that you’ve tricked your taste buds into being satisfied with less.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with healthy snacks.The next time you get a craving for something sweet, consider fruit,low-sugar cereal, or add fruit to plain yogurt.
  • Make substitutions. Add sweetness and flavor to food with cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, and nutmeg. Muffins and quick breads can be made with 25 percent less sugar, and the sugar in pie fillings can be cut in half. Finally, try substituting 100 percent fruit juice for honey or other liquid sweeteners. — Karen Bryla McNees, Ed.D., R.D.

Ask the Expert: To lift or not to lift

Q: Can you solve this once and for all? I've heard some people say women who lift weights will "bulk up" particularly in the hips, thighs and butt. Then others claim lifting weights is the only surefire way to tone and slim those areas. What is the truth?

A: The short answer is no, women will not "bulk up" by lifting weights. Generally, women will not gain as much lean body mass and "bulk" as men will through weight lifting. But there are factors aside from gender to consider including how you lift and your genetics. A key point to remember is that different training programs cause different results.
First, let's clarify the choice of words. To "bulk up" implies big muscles, while to be "slim and toned" means to have a lean, muscular body but not huge, hulking biceps. Women who lift weights are far more likely to become slim and toned rather than bulky. That sounds much more appealing, right? Read more about how to tone your lower body.
The best way to achieve a slim and toned body is through resistance training combined with cardiovascular training and flexibility training. All three are needed, not just for health benefits, but also to "tone" the body.
When it comes to strength training, the best option to achieve both muscular strength and muscular endurance is to complete 8 to 12 reps of high intensity lifting if you are generally healthy (ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 7th ed.). Remember, "high intensity" varies based on the individual's strength and overall fitness level. In other words, you don't have to lift the heaviest dumbbells on the rack to see results. It's also important to remember that in some exercises, such as the squat, you are also lowering and lifting your body weight. Sometimes that alone is enough to feel the burn.
Women can use weight training to tighten and tone their lower body without adding bulk. One set of 8 to 12 reps of squats, lunges, dead lifts, etc. is enough to load the muscle and increase strength and endurance.
Bottom line: Weight training will not automatically make women look like "body builders." Rest assured, women who do participate in the world of fitness and figure competitions work hard to look the way they do though grueling and intense workout and nutrition regimens.
If you would like to begin a strength training program or change your current plan, contact any of the Body Shop staff on your next gym visit to have them set you up with an Exercise Prescription unique to you. -- Carrie Davidson, ACSM HFI