You’re familiar with the food pyramid, it’s plastered all over the cafeteria walls, but eating a balanced diet isn’t all it takes to live a healthy lifestyle. As you age, it’s important to know how to care for yourself, which means it’s time you understand what the nutrition facts on food labels actually mean. Starting from the top, and working your way down:
The serving size tells you two things. First, the right proportion for a single serving. Second, how many servings are in the package. It’s okay to eat more than one serving, but then you have to increase all the other information on the label to reflect the amount of food you’re consuming. Having this basic information helps you with portion control. If you aren’t satisfied after eating several servings of one item, chances are, your diet needs more diversity and you need to reach for something new to cure your craving.
It’s easy to place all your emphasis on calorie count, but it’s just as important to know where these calories come from (listed below). This is why a lot of labels include Calories from Fat. A particular portion of the calories come from fat, rather than other nutrient-rich ingredients. It’s important to know the amount of fat you’re consuming. Not all fat is bad. Your body does need a certain amount of fat to be healthy, but your body does need a lot of other ingredients too.
Percent of Daily Value
The percent of the daily value is typically based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. As a teen, your diet should probably be more than 2,000 calories. If you aren’t sure what you should be consuming, ask your doctor, coach or gym teacher.
As a general rule, 5% daily value is rather low, but a 20% daily value is high. For the majority of the food you consume (due to trends in society) Sodium will always be the biggest ticket item. Other items you should try to avoid include: trans fat, saturated fat and sugar. Note that sugar is listed under Carbohydrate. You’ve learned in science class that as Carbs touch your mouth, they turn into sugar. The sugar listed under Carbohydrate is often an added sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in the food we consume, making it unhealthy.
There are very healthy carbohydrates that you want to consume plenty of (fresh fruits and vegetables for example). An item you eat may have few calories, but when you break those calories down, they come from ingredients you want to avoid, while offering little fiber, potassium, protein, vitamins and minerals (the items you want to eat more of).
The ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least. The first few ingredients are the most significant and are worth noting. The ingredients listed near the bottom of the list are used in small amounts. These lesser ingredients are still important, but not as crucial. Be aware of sugars, chemicals, artificial flavors and preservatives in your food. For example, compare a bottle of generic ketchup to an organic ketchup. An organic brand typically lists tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and spices – very familiar items. A generic brand (which may cost a few pennies less) lists a myriad of ingredients made in a lab. Our body doesn’t know how to process these ingredients.
Many young people don’t need to be concerned with what they eat or how much they eat because of your still growing body. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore the facts. These labels provide helpful information. It’s not healthy to become obsessed with tracking every single bite you place in your mouth. Gaining a perspective of what you eat when you’re young will help you become more aware of what’s good for your body as you grow into the person God created you to be.