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 some 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. Janelle McLeod, RD, LDN, who counsels teens in the weight management clinic at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, teaches her patients to zero in on several key pieces. "I like to teach them how to make lower fat food choices that meet the American Heart Association guidelines," she says. This entails selecting foods that have no more than 3 grams total fat for every 100 calories. "I also like to encourage higher fiber foods for fullness and foods that have some protein for longer satiety." Foods with added sugar and salt should be limited as much as possible. Candy, soda, baked goods, chips and other popular snack foods have few valuable nutrients.
For a teenager-sized appetite, a single portion often doesn't satisfy. A teen could consume an entire bag of chips or a bottle of soda that actually contains several portions better suited for splitting between friends. "Many serving sizes listed on items are small and wouldn't fill you up," says McLeod. In a world of heaping restaurant portions, fast food and all-you-can-eat buffets, she points out that teens may go along with the crowd. "They may just follow the example of food portions that they see eaten by friends and family." Teens are growing and need both calories and nutrients. Focusing on nutrient-rich foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats, 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 Panel helps determine whether or not it's a good choice overall. Eating disorders are more common during the teen years, especially for teen girls. If your teen becomes obsessed with reading Nutrition Facts Panels 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. Smartphone apps and other online tools may motivate a teen to be mindful of eating habits. "Many food journal apps and websites have Nutrition Facts for menu items of chain restaurants," says McLeod.
There's no question that your teenagers will make mistakes along the way, but continue to encourage them to take ownership of their health — it will pay off!
Additionally reviewed July 2015 Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN, is a clinical dietitian at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.