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Look before you eat! Helping kids decode nutrition facts and labels

April 06, 2016

Understanding how to read the nutrition facts label at an early age can help children and teens make healthy choices throughout their life. When it comes to teaching kids about label reading, it is important to stick to the basics and then slowly build up to the details.

So, why is it important to teach kids how to read labels? It helps them understand what they are putting into their body. It teaches kids to learn how to compare foods and determine the healthiest option for their growing body. With the extra knowledge, kids will feel more in control of what they are eating.

Label reading can be as easy as 1-2-3.

There are three important steps to label reading; checking the serving size, looking at the calories, and choosing nutrients wisely. These steps can be introduced slowly or even one at a time to assure your child fully understands the meaning of each. Think of each step as a building block- a stable foundation is important to help build knowledge which can in time, lead to behavior change.

Step #1: Check the serving size

The serving size and the servings per container are shown at the top of the nutrition facts label, just under the bolded words “Nutrition Facts.” Serving size tells us how much a person should eat of a particular food. Think of the serving size as the driver of a car, it controls how much or how little of the nutrients we will be getting. For example, if you have two servings of cereal, this means you will need to double everything on the nutrition facts label. If you have three servings, then everything will be tripled. Without checking, we can easily have more than one serving.

The servings per container tells us how many people can have one serving. In simple terms, if the serving size is two cookies and the servings per container is five, this means five people can have two cookies. Remember to always check the servings per container on vending machine items because they often contain more than one.

Activity: Encourage kids to choose their favorite snacks and to pour out how much they would eat in one sitting. Then provide them the nutrition facts label to see if they are able to compare what they normally eat with the actual serving size. Cereal, cookies, and chips are great for this activity. Discuss differences.

Step #2: Look at the calories

Calories are energy in our food; we need calories for our body to grow and work properly. Without the proper amount of calories, we become tired, sluggish, crabby, and most likely not able to meet our nutritional needs. It is important to find balance with calories so we don’t have too much or too little. Overtime, if your child eats too many calories for what their body needs, they will likely gain weight. Because of this, we want to choose our calories wisely.

Note #1: The food label is based on 2,000 calories but an individual’s calorie needs might differ. Remember, the more active your kids are, the more calories their body needs.

Note #2: When checking for the calories on the food label, a good rule of thumb is remembering that 400 calories for a single food is high and 100 calories is moderate.

Tip:  Think of calories as money. For example, if your child needs 2,000 calories per day, which means they have 2,000 dollars to spend. It is up to them how they want to spend it but when it’s gone, it’s gone. The key is to find ways to save money (choose lower calorie foods) so they are able to purchase (eat more) items.

Activity #1:  If your family plans on going out for dinner, search for the menu and nutrition facts online. Most likely every chain restaurant will have the calories posted on their website. This is a great opportunity for your child to make healthy switches to their meal. They might notice that switching out certain sides can help save up the calories for later in the day.

Activity #2: Challenge kids to keep track of their calories for one day. Teach this as an education piece verses counting calories for weight loss. See if they can make healthy switches to their snacks to help save calories. Serving size can also be incorporated into this activity.

Step #3 Choose nutrients wisely 

Lastly, we want to choose our nutrients wisely. Nutrients help our body grow so we are able to stay healthy and strong, but there are some nutrients we want to have more of and some we want to have less of. Fiber, potassium, vitamins A & C, iron and calcium are the nutrients we want to eat plenty of. Trans-fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar are the ones we want to limit.

When it comes to teaching kids about label reading, I like to keep it simple. I focus on the nutrients that are especially important for this age group, such as sugar, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin C & A.

Sugar: Sugars on the food label contain both natural (fruit, dairy etc.) as well as added sugar (soda, cookies, candy etc.). Choose foods with the least amount of added sugar by comparing food labels. High amounts of sugar can lead to unwanted weight gain and possibly tooth decay.

Fiber: Fiber helps move food through our digestive tract and helps keep you feeling full. Our body cannot digest fiber which leads to its many health benefits. Fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans.

Calcium: Is what helps build strong bones and teeth. It can be found in calcium-fortified soy milk and dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Iron: Keeps your blood healthy. Our body uses iron to help carry oxygen to our muscles and to the rest of our body. Iron helps keep our energy level up. Foods that contain iron are breakfast cereals, meats, beans, and grains.

Vitamin C: Helps your body heal cuts and scratches. Vitamin C is also important for keeping gums and teeth healthy. It can be found in many fruits such as oranges, strawberries and kiwi.

Vitamin A: Helps protect our eyes and skin. Plays an important role in helping you see at night. Vitamin A is often found on orange/red vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes.

When looking at these key nutrients on a food label we often see percentages to the right. These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet but they are very helpful in determining if we are eating too much or too little of certain nutrients. They are called the percent daily value (%DV). When the percentage is 5% or below, we consider it low. When the percentage is 20% or above, we consider it high.  For the nutrients we want less of, we should aim for a low percentage. For the nutrients we want more of, aiming for a high percentage is a good choice.

By teaching kids how to read food labels, you are giving them an opportunity to take their health to the next level. Remember, knowledge is power.