Teach Your Teen about Food Labels

By Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN
Teenager reading Nutrition Facts on a food label - Teach Your Teen about Nutrition Facts Panels

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If decoding the information on a food package is a challenge for adults, think of how hard it is for teens who are just beginning to make choices for themselves. Give your teens help as they become more aware of what they're putting in their bodies.

Narrow the Focus

A wealth of information greets a health-conscious label reader in the Nutrition Facts portion of a food package. Focusing on just a few nutrients can make label reading more manageable for young consumers. "I like to encourage fiber-rich foods that are popular and easy for teens to add to their diet," says Kristen Gradney, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "I always suggest incorporating snacks such as guacamole with whole-wheat pita chips, popcorn and fruit. It is important to help them understand that eating enough fiber can keep them fuller longer and improve their digestion." Foods with added sugars and salt should be limited. Candy, soda, baked goods, chips and other popular snack foods have few valuable nutrients.

Portion Distortion

For a teenager-sized appetite, a single portion often doesn't satisfy. Some teens could consume an entire bag of chips or a bottle of soda that actually contains several portions better suited for splitting between friends. "We often assume teens will eat based on what they see friends eating, but if we encourage and inform them to eat more fruits and vegetables and eat appropriately sized portions, they can make healthier choices and set the example that others will want to follow," says Gradney. Teens are growing and need both calories and nutrients. Focusing on nutrient-rich foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains — will help your teen fill up without overdoing it on calories, fat, sugar and salt.

Health Claims: Too Good to be True?

Assertions that manufacturers make about their foods often send mixed messages. Who would guess that a sugar-loaded cereal could be a source of whole grains, or that a fruit-flavored beverage could boost immunity? Teach your teen to investigate further when the message on the front of the package is questionable. Studying the Nutrition Facts Label helps determine whether or not it's a healthful choice. Eating disorders are more common during the teen years, especially for teen girls. If your teen becomes obsessed with reading Nutrition Facts Labels and overly restrictive about food, discuss what makes a balanced healthy lifestyle and consider calling the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

Making Good Choices Away from Home

With teens' increased independence, parents often are no longer in control of what they eat. Instilling general principles of healthy eating will help guide teens when they're out and about. Mobile apps and other online tools may motivate a teen to be mindful of eating habits. "Using technology is a fun and interactive way for teens to engage in healthy activities, such as creating team challenges among friends to increase intake of fruits, vegetables or water and bump up their physical activity," says Gradney. "These mobile apps often can be customized with reminders, incentives and fun graphics to meet the teen's needs."

There's no question that your teenagers will indulge in less-than-nutritious choices along the way, but continue to encourage them to take ownership of their health — it will pay off!

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