The use of the word “healthy” on food labels faces additional scrutiny under updated standards proposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The agency’s plan to force manufacturers to show that so-called health products contain limited amounts of some ingredients (fat and saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol) and minimum levels of nutrients (fiber, protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C) was welcome. news for Melissa Keeney, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Hartford HealthCare.
“In the nearly 30 years since the FDA began defining the word ‘healthy’ on food labels, the science of nutrition has changed,” he said, noting that the new proposal aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2020-2025. “Current guidelines focus on the type of fat consumed rather than total fat and foods low in salt and added sugars.”
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beyond the label
While food labels can help people with limited nutrition knowledge, Keeney said a healthy diet should:
- Provide the right fuel for your life
- Include items from different food groups for a variety of nutrients
- be nice
- Be realistic for your life
“A healthy diet is not just about eating healthy foods. It’s about having a healthy relationship with food,” Keeney explained.
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the power of the word
While he said people still need help understanding which foods are healthy and which aren’t (for example, the FDA doesn’t clearly define the word “natural,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the foods have nutritional value), ruling out foods less healthy is also not helpful.
“All foods can fit into a ‘healthy’ diet,” Keeney began. “In fact, I believe that a ‘healthy’ diet also includes foods that we eat to enjoy. Food labels and dietary guidelines are suggestions and a starting point for people.”
If possible, he suggested that people meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist to tailor a dietary plan to their individual nutritional needs and pleasure.
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Seal of approval
Discussing the recent FDA proposal, Keeney said the measure promotes nutrient-dense foods such as:
- Olive oil
- mixed nuts
Items that aren’t considered nutrient-dense and therefore “unhealthy” include white bread and highly sweetened cereals, he added.
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The proposed limits on saturated fat, salt and added sugar are key to keeping the body healthy and reducing the risk of chronic disease, Keeney said.
“Since the first labeling rules were established, we have learned more about the types of fat. Choosing unsaturated fats like oils and nuts are more heart-healthy than saturated fats found in meat and dairy,” he explained, adding that eating low-sodium foods is also better for heart health.
Calling the news “a piece of the puzzle”, he urged people to take charge of their own health.
“If you want to start eating more nutritious, I suggest you focus on one small change at a time. Add another fruit or vegetable per day, drink an extra glass of water, try to make half your grains whole, use herbs and spices instead of salt,” he said.
“These small changes really add up in the long run.”
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