We’ve all see the headlines: One shouts, “Avoid butter!” and the next, “Butter is good for you!” With all the opposing nutritional news that comes at us about nearly everything we consume, it’s no wonder people are confused about what to eat. A new survey by the International Food Information Council, or IFIC, found that 78 percent of consumers receive conflicting information about what to eat and avoid, and more than half of those folks (56%) doubt the choices they make as a result.

Despite the befuddlement, overwhelmingly, people want the benefits of healthful food, and they want to make good choices. The survey showed that 96% of consumers seek out health benefits (the top ones are weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy, and digestive health) from what they eat and drink, but out of those, only 45% could identify a single food or nutrient associated with those benefits. As an example of this kind of disconnect, only 12% could associate omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish) with heart health; less than 5% could positively say that caffeine provided energy to the body.

Decoding Labels and Debunking Fads

The IFIC survey found that consumers consider “healthy” foods to be those that, among other criteria, are high in healthy components or nutrients such as Vitamin D, fiber, whole grains and protein from plant sources; free from artificial ingredients, preservatives, or additives; part of an important food group such as vegetables; and low in unhealthy ingredients and components.

Wording on food packages can be incredibly misleading. One study gave subjects identical foods in different packages. One package was plain, and the other had a nutritional “health halo” message such as “low fat,” “made with whole grains,” or “low sugar” on it. The subjects would eat more from the package with the health message on it. The trouble here is that while something may indeed have low fat, in can be high in sugar, and vice versa. Something “made with whole grains” can also have a lot of other not-so-great things in it – like saturated fat and sugar.

Even nutritional food labels, which, in theory are designed to help consumers make better choices, sometimes add to the confusion. For example, “serving size” as noted on the package is often different than the actual portion size, which is what you eat. So, for example, a package of crackers may have nutrition information for three crackers, but in reality, if you eat 10, then you’ll have to do more math to get the right numbers.

Where to Turn for Good Information

Even those who are adept at understanding food labeling and packaging messages sometimes need help putting all that information together to create an overall food philosophy so they can consistently make good choices. The survey says that consumers are most influenced about following a diet or eating pattern by:

Because we’re all different, with variables in our activity level, tastes and how our bodies react to certain foods, it’s hard to lay out a one-size-fits all plan for what’s best to eat. At Herbalife Nutrition, we educate and train our distributors on the basics of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle, which helps them to work more closely with their customers and help them reach their goals. If you at least have a plan, you can feel confident in what you’re eating. Here are my recommendations on how to approach the many nutritional choices we make each day:

Trade up: Can you make a better choice? If your body is craving something, take a moment to opt for the healthier option – like popcorn popped in olive oil or by air over a bag of chips, seltzer with a squeeze of citrus instead of sugary soda, or a ripe juicy peach with Greek yogurt instead of ice cream.

Prioritize your calories: Cut back on foods with the highest empty calories (generally high in saturated fat and sugar) and switch in healthier choices. Then move to the next-highest calorie food, and swap that out for a better choice. It may feel unfamiliar at first, but eventually your meals will become more filling and more satisfying.

Go natural: Choose food in its most whole form – the less processed it is, the better it is for you (and, likely, the better it will taste). So instead of applesauce, apple pie or apple juice, go for the actual apple; instead of kale chips, choose the whole fresh vegetable. You’ll be getting full flavor but fewer calories, salt, fat and sugar.

Plan ahead: You’ll make better choices when you have better foods at the ready. Stock your fridge and pantry with good foods, and bring raw nuts, fruit and other snacks with you in case you get hungry and there aren’t any better options around. When you’re really hungry or tired, it’s harder to make better choices.

Susan Bowerman

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman is the senior director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Dietetic Advisory Board (DAB). As a registered dietitian, she educates distributors about our global nutrition philosophy and is responsible for developing nutrition education and training materials. Bowerman earned a B.S. in Biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds two board certifications as a specialist in Sports Dietetics and in Obesity and Weight Management. When she is not busy teaching and writing, Susan enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and gardening. Her favorite Herbalife products include Simply Probiotic and Herbalife Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix Banana Caramel.