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Somewhere along the way, we were told to read our labels. This was supposed to make us a smarter and healthier consumer. We started reading the fats, sugars, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber and calorie content of the food we ate. We also began to pay closer attention to the ingredient list. We were being so savvy and healthy.
But something happened with this. Confusion crept in with these numbers. Obsession took hold. And fear became associated with food, somehow. Our relationship with food began to morph into something unrecognizable. We started to believe that the smaller the number in each category, the more worthy that food was to consume.
Everyone I know that has a poor connection with food, that cannot comprehend balance and moderation when it comes to food, and is ultimately very unhealthy, has a history of intensely tracking nutrient values. The label has taken over their lives.
Is this you?
Do you constantly flip the package over or look up every single food you eat?
Let’s stop the madness. Please.
Here are six reasons why I believe you should stop reading nutrition fact labels (or even look up the facts using an app like myfitnesspal):
One. Food eventually becomes numbers, not actual food. You stop eating and choosing foods based on their healthfulness and flavor, and instead make choices based on a number. You will choose a certain vegetable over another vegetable because it has fewer carbs. Or you will choose this chip over that chip because it has fewer calories. When did food become just numbers?
Two. Because of this, certain foods can start to become “bad”. When you apply number values to foods, you lose good judgement. If I compared the nutrition facts of spinach to an apple, the apple would certainly be higher in sugar and carbs, while lower in fiber. Does this mean apples are bad? There are certainly foods that provide you with more nutrients than others, but there is a place in your diet for every food. There are no good foods and bad foods. (Even a giant margarita every once in a while is not “bad”!)
Three. You don’t get the chance to learn how to choose healthy foods. I can probably find 15 different granola bars that have fewer calories than my veggie sticks, hummus and hard boiled eggs. But you tell me: which snack option is healthier for your body? If you’re choosing your foods simply based on their value, you may end up eating a lot of 100 calorie snack packs. How healthy is that?
I spent years thinking I was being healthier because I was buying low fat Wheat Thins instead of regular Wheat Thins.
Um…ditch the Wheat Thins!
Four. Along those lines, if it has a nutrition fact on it, it’s probably a packaged and processed item. With truly healthy eating you should be choosing real, whole foods at every opportunity, instead of processed foods. (Refer back to the granola bar vs. veggies and hard-boiled egg example.) If it comes in a box or a plastic package, and therefore has a big ‘ol nutrition label on it, you shouldn’t be eating it very often.
Five. The number one difficulty with tracking your nutrient values is that it is nearly impossible to do in so many situations. The moment you are invited to a dinner party or go to a restaurant you are thrown for a loop. So usually, you try to look up and guess individual values and quantities, but this is terribly inaccurate. What typically happens is that you bag it altogether and eat something terrible.
Six. You also need to understand that these numbers, and the nutrients they’re supposed to represent, behave very differently for every person. The way carbohydrates, proteins and fats are metabolized in your body could be dramatically different than your friend. If you are both trying to eat 100g of carbohydrates or less per day, this could be optimal for her, but may send you into a horrible tailspin. The same goes for protein and fats. All of our needs are different.
Is it ever ok? The big question that lingers then is when is it okay to look at the nutrition facts? I’m not about to start picketing and collecting pledges to have labels removed from foods. When used appropriately, they can serve a purpose.
Here are 4 situations that call for looking at the label:
- There are certain medical reasons to closely track nutrients, such as diabetes, gestational diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that require certain nutrients to remain within a boundary.
- Sometimes, very high level athletes must track their macronutrients for optimal performance. In these situations, they are working very closely with a dietitian and their food is perfectly mapped out for them. There is minimal room for error.
- It is helpful to be aware of the distribution of fat sources. Appropriate dietary fat consumption is very important, especially making sure you get a balanced amount of fat types (saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated) in your diet. If you’re not sure what type of fat your olive oil or walnut oil contains, check the label and it will tell you. Learn more about the different types of fat here.
- It is also important to eat foods that are high in protein, and a quick glance at the label may be helpful. I will look at the label to compare brands of lowfat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt (these inevitably come out of a package), and will end up choosing the one with more protein. It’s not a big deal if one has 2 more grams than the other, but you might as well get the one with more!
- Sometimes the ingredient list is helpful. Once again, there are certain foods that are unavoidably packaged, like nut butters, bread, cans of beans and tomatoes, oils, some meats and dairy food. If you are unfamiliar with a particular brand of these processed foods, glance at the ingredient list and choose one that has minimal ingredients. For example, choose a peanut butter that contains only peanuts. Please, don't get obsessed with this, though. Just try to make unpackaged/unprocessed foods the majority of your grocery haul.
The takeaway is that we should be choosing foods based on how healthy, fresh, whole and full of nutrients they are, not on their number value.
It never impresses me when a client describes a particular protein bar or muffin they discovered that "only has 120 calories!" I will immediately ask them why they chose this over some fresh produce and lean protein. Do you see the difference in perspective?
Look at your food as food. Don't look at your food as a bunch of numbers to be logged and tracked. You are NOT a smarter and healthier consumer by reading all your food labels. Chances are you're drifting into a trap of food confusion and obsession. Be careful here, and be healthy!