I used to never pay attention to what was in my food. My groceries were covered with nutrition labels detailing exactly what ingredients were used in every product, but I just didn’t care.
I first got into the habit of reading nutrition labels about four years ago when I wanted to lose weight. For the first time in my life, calorie counts mattered to me.
When I went vegetarian earlier this year, I picked the habit back up again. This time, my main concern was whether products had any hidden meat.
By reading the nutrition labels on everything I eat, I’ve learned a lot of surprising facts about my food and my diet.
#1 — Most of my calories came from just a few snacks.
My biggest surprise when I started reading the labels was how disproportionately calorie-heavy some of my snacks were. I had always assumed that most of my calories came from meals, and just a few came from my snacks. With the way I was eating, this was completely reverse.
There was a particular trail mix I loved that turned out to have about 150 calories per serving. This doesn’t sound like much, but the servings were so small that I often ate four or five at a time. It was a truly massive amount of calories, and it didn’t even fill me up.
The flip side of this was discovering just how low in calories certain foods were. Of course, I had already known that fruits and vegetables were lower in calories than chips, but I had never understood just how much lower. I could eat as many servings of fruit and vegetables as I wanted without ever worrying about their effects on my calorie count.
#2 — There are animal ingredients in all kinds of food.
When I first went vegetarian, I wasn’t paying close attention to which foods contained animals and which didn’t. I thought it was essentially common sense. It wasn’t until I started reading the ingredients closely that I realized animal components are hidden in all kinds of food.
The biggest offender that I’ve noticed is gelatin, which appears in everything from breakfast cereal to daily vitamins. I’m continually annoyed by how many foods include it.
I’ve messed up many times since going vegetarian, and almost always it was because I wasn’t careful about reading the label before starting to eat. The ingredient list is absolutely essential for maintaining this diet.
#3 — Added sugar is nearly impossible to escape.
Once I started paying attention to ingredient labels, I realized that a shocking number of foods contain added sugar. It shows up in the expected foods like candy, but it also shows up in places I never would have imagined.
My daily yogurt, which I tend to think of as a health food, actually contains 13 grams of added sugar. Store brought bread is another high-sugar offender. Even my vegetarian faux-sausages have sugar added to them.
Fortunately, I cook most of my meals from scratch. This is the only way I’ve found to reliably avoid constant added sugar.
When it comes to snacks though, I’ve just come to accept that it’s a losing battle. I try to choose foods with less added sugar, but I don’t have the energy to avoid it completely.
I don’t eat a perfect diet, but I eat much better than I did four years ago. Checking the labels before I eat has helped tremendously in improving my diet.
If you’re not already reading the nutrition labels on your food, I highly recommend you start. You’ll likely be surprised by what you discover.