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Waist Watchers: Reading labels

Do you look at the ingredients on the labels for the food you eat? Maybe you should and one local program can teach you how to do it.

Food is a big part of south Louisiana's culture. From world class restaurants to home cooked meals, it all starts at the grocery store.

But do shoppers pay attention to food labels and ingredients before they cook?

"I look for low salt or low fat and try to get organic when possible," said shopper Valerie Bernard.

"A little bit of both," said Nicolette Magallanes. "I always come with lists to make sure every-thing is pretty healthy."

Teaching shoppers how to read food labels is the focus of local tours now offered at grocery stores for anyone who wants to sign up.

"You always have to read the ingredients," said nutritionist Rebecca Miller.

Miller navigates the food aisles with client Natalia Branch.  The tours are courtesy of a partnership with Ochsner and Rouses.

Miller says not paying attention to ingredients in your food could affect your health, especially those with chronic illnesses.

"They could be getting a lot of fat or calories," said Miller. "Also, if you are just throwing it in there and not meal planning, it's hard to watch out for sodium and other [things] you may need to watch out for."

For starters, Miller recommends shoppers to stick to the perimeter or out sections of the store. Here, shoppers can find healthier foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

In general, foods that are processed and higher in calories, fat and sugar are in the individual isles.

"When you look at the food label, the first thing you look at is the serving size," said Miller.

Serving sizes are important because it tells you the amount of food or drink in a product, which helps you determine how many calories you're consuming in each of those servings.

As for the amount of fat in the food, the more fat - the higher the calories.

Miller suggests looking for the amount of trans fat and saturated fat in food products. These are the types known to increase your level of cholesterol and risk for heart disease.

Unsaturated fat is healthier for your heart.

As for sugar content, Miller suggests looking under the label of total carbohydrates to see the amount of extra sugars added to that food.

Look for key words like molasses, high fructose, agave and corn syrup to see how much extra you're consuming. This is especially important if you are living with a chronic illness.

"Ingredients are listed in order of abundance, so the first ingredient followed by the second and third," said Miller.

This idea of locals taking a tour of grocery stores to learn more about the ingredients in the food that they eat comes at the same time that the federal government is taking steps to make major changes to the labels on the food products you buy.

Among the proposed changes, new regulations would recommend putting calorie amounts in larger print type and adjusting the portion sizes to better reflect how much you will actually eat.

"I think it's great. Labels need to catch up where we are in our understanding of nutrition," said Lauri Byerley, a physiologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans.  

Doctor Byerley is a medical expert on the how foods impact your metabolism and the impact your overall health.

"We know the foods we eat can influence development of colon cancer. So if you're not getting an adequate amount of grain and fruits and vegetable and a diet more towards animal products, it can increase your risk of developing colon cancer," she said.

This is why educating yourself on reading food labels is a skill health experts encourage all to do when shopping.

Clients like Natalia Branch say the local food tour is well worth her time. It has given her guidance on what to look for, especially on things like serving sizes.

"If it's a tiny bar of frozen Greek yogurt, just think is it realistic to eat one or will you eat two so just calculate the size in your head," said Branch.

It's an educational process health experts say will go a long way in keeping you and your family healthy in the long run.

To learn more about a free tour, call (504) 842-5669.

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