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Labels don't tell the whole story of kids' nutrition


Nutrition Facts labels for kids are different from adult labels. Portion sizes, daily values and the nutrients listed have been changed to reflect the specific needs of infants and children up to age 4.

Q: Where are the fat facts?

A: The kids' label lists the total grams of fat per serving, but that's the end of the fat story. Fat details listed on adult labels, including calories from fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, will not appear on infant labels. That's because infants and young children have big calorie needs for their size but small stomachs that fill up quickly. Fat is a very concentrated source of calories that helps meet energy needs without the filling bulk of high-fiber foods.

So, despite the fact that parents may need to control their own fat intake, limiting their kids' fat is a mistake, as long as they're eating a variety of healthful foods. Numerous health organizations have been clear about not recommending skim milk or other low-fat dairy products for children under 2 years old.

Q: How big is a serving?

A: One big battle fought over label laws was about "serving size." Should portions match the servings in the Food Guide Pyramid or more closely resemble what folks actually eat at one sitting? Reality won. So the infant label reflects smaller portions than adult labels.

Beware, though. Kids, like adults, are different. They're different from each other and different day to day. Serving sizes are not recommendations. They're just units of measure.

Registered dietitian Ellyn Satter says: "You are responsible for what your child is offered, where and when it is presented. She is responsible for how much of it she eats." In "Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense," Ms. Satter notes that huge helpings may make a child feel overwhelmed, sometimes to the point where she won't even try to eat. It's best, she says, to "Give less than you think your child will eat and let her ask for more."

Parents can relax once they know how little food children really need. Ms. Satter suggests the following portions for toddlers.

* Milk: 2-3 cups per day. Two cups is adequate; more than 3 is inadvisable, because it is then replacing other foods in the diet.

* Fruits and vegetables: 4 servings per day. An average adult serving is 1/2 cup or one piece (as commonly served). For a child, a nutritionally adequate portion is 1 tablespoon per year of age or one-fourth of the adult serving. Thus, a child 2 years old will be taking 2 tablespoons of fruit or vegetables per serving, or a quarter of an apple or banana.

* Bread and cereals, enriched or whole grain: 4 servings per day. A child's serving is 1/4 to 1/3 the adult portion size. The adult serving would be one slice of bread or 1/2 cup of rice, cereal or pasta.

* Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, peanut butter, cooked dried beans: 2 servings per day. An adult's serving of meat is 2 to 3 ounces at a meal. A child's serving is about 1/2 ounce, for a total of 1 ounce per day. If the child under 3 is taking 2 cups of milk per day, 1 ounce of meat or equivalent is adequate to provide protein.

Daily values are different

Daily Value percentages for protein, vitamins and minerals are listed separately for infants up to 1 year old, and for children from 1 to 4. But daily values for fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrate and fiber are absent, because values for these nutrients for children under 4 are not yet known.

Don't worry if your child doesn't eat a perfectly balanced diet daily. Most kids will balance out calories and food choices over several days.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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