If you want your children to embrace a health consciousness that will last through their adult years, equip them with the skills they need to make wise, nutritious food choices. Once skill to teach them now is how to read and understand food labels.
When you show your child or adolescent to read and interpret food labels, they learn more about what’s in the food they eat, how nutrients function in the body, and what to avoid. This is especially good if your child suffers from food allergies. For those with children who are overweight or obese, teaching them about what’s in their food will not only create awareness of what’s going into their body and how their body interacts with what it’s being fed, but will instill a desire to make healthy food choices which will lead to weight loss, higher self-esteem, and better overall academic performance.
The Food and Drug Administration does an admirable job demonstrating how you can help your child read and understand what’s on a food label. They break food labels down into three parts: serving size, calories, and nutrients.
Serving Size. Show your children that one package of food may contain more than one serving! Then use the serving size to discover the total number of calories and nutrients per package. This will help them to understand how many servings they are eating of any given food in one sitting.
Calories. When teaching your children how to compare foods, the FDA teaches that 400 or more calories per serving for a single food is high and 100 is moderate. Once you have showed your child how many calories are in the package, have them measure out a complete serving so that they can see what their ideal portion size for this food or snack looks like. Remind them that every food label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Nutrients. Pick foods that are lower in certain fats, cholesterol, and sodium. When comparing % DV (Percent Daily Value), remember: 5% DV is low; 20% DV is high!
- Get more of these nutrients: Potassium, fiber, vitamins A & C, iron, and calcium. Choose foods with a higher % DV of these important nutrients.
- Get fewer of these nutrients: Trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugars. Choose foods that are lower in these nutrients.
Sneaky Sugar: Ingredients List Tell All
The last item you and your child will encounter is the ingredients list. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to teach your child to be cautious of foods that start out with sugars (like sugar, corn syrup, and sucrose), fats and oils (vegetable oil, soybean oil), and salt. When and combination of these ingredients appear as the first three listed, the food is probably not a good choice. Another warning about sugar is that it goes by nearly 60 different names. When you and your child come across ingredients with the suffix “–ose,” more often than not, it’s sugar. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar for children to a range 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) per day. This serving size all but eliminates many varieties of yogurts (which are full of hidden sugars), many granola bars (which appear healthy but are not) and several varieties of breakfast cereals. For the sake of demonstration, consider that one package of Pop-Tarts contains 32 grams of sugar — 7 grams over your child’s daily recommended limit.
A second rule of thumb is that longer an ingredient is, the less likely that it’s natural and thus not healthy for your child’s body. Look for foods that have a short ingredient list with natural-sounding ingredients that you can pronounce.
Finally, do your best to keep ingredients down to a total of three. This means that it’s more natural and less likely to be processed in any way. Compare a package of raw nuts to a package of flavored nuts to see the difference.
The journey to overcoming childhood obesity begins with education. When we help give children the right tools to be successful and support and encourage them along the way, we can reshape how they think about food and eventually how they see themselves. We recommend that you read “The Sierras Weight Loss Solution for Teens and Kids.” You can get a copy at the HFS Store, where you’ll find other helpful nutrition-based titles,