A key to losing weight is being informed about food, according to local health experts. And one of the first mistakes people make is not looking at food labels.
“The first thing I look at is the definition of a serving, and the second is the number of calories per serving,” said Dr. Karen Smith, deputy director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. “This allows me to figure out how many calories I’ll get if I eat as much as I plan to.”
Smith estimates her food-label-reading costs her an extra 10 minutes per shopping trip — but it’s well worth the time to maintain a healthy weight.
Analyzing food labels can seem overwhelming, Smith said. But knowing what to look for can make it a fairly easy process.
When reading a label, health experts recommend paying special attention to the following:
• Serving size (The number of calories and all other nutrient amounts listed on the label are based on the serving size. If a product lists 50 calories, for example, but a person eats two servings, he or she is actually ingesting 100 calories.)
• Calories (Recommended calorie intake depends on one’s size, gender, age, and activity level. Eating too many calories in a day increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese.)
• Fat (Daily fat intake should be less than 30 percent of one’s total calories. Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol intake should be kept as low as possible.)
Experts also advise people to read the list of ingredients. Typically, the first three or four ingredients are what’s present in the highest quantities.
An ingredients list may include one or more of the following: high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose, maltose, sucrose, honey, or evaporated cane juice. These ingredients may be listed separately, but they are all forms of sugar.
Health experts recommend that people limit, or avoid, foods and beverages with added sugar — such as soda.
A 12-ounce can of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar, and a 20-ounce bottle has about 17 teaspoons, said Vimlan VanDien, Napa County’s WIC coordinator and nutrition supervisor.
Sugars are often referred to as “empty calories,” because they have “very little nutritional value,” VanDien said. Empty calories contribute to weight gain but nothing else, she said.
“Most people in our society can get all the sugar they need in its naturally occurring form such as in fruits and as a product of the metabolism of grains,” Smith said.
Teaching kids healthy habits
Once a parent knows how to read a food label, health experts recommend passing that knowledge onto children.
More than 40 percent of fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-graders in Napa County are overweight or obese, according to the California Department of Education.
Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, which increases their risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
To help establish healthy eating habits, VanDien recommends allowing children to help in the kitchen by preparing healthy meals.
Kids who help in the kitchen have the opportunity to learn about different fruits and vegetables. They learn how raw foods are turned into cooked foods, and that not all foods come from fast-food restaurants, VanDien said.
Kids are “fascinated” by the cooking process, Smith said. For picky eaters, especially, helping in the kitchen can make them more open to trying new fruits and vegetables.