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Find out more about healthy, intelligent eating with our guide to understanding the information on food labels.

Understanding the info on food packaging can be tricky,  but being able to “read” what’s printed on the label can make a big difference to your family’s diet (and wellbeing). We chatted to some people in the know and rounded up these tips for intelligent eating and food-shopping savvy.


food label lingo

The order of the nutrients on a nutritional label corresponds to how much of each is in the food. The first on the list is the main ingredient and the last makes up the smallest portion.  A typical nutrition analysis table must provide information on kilojoules (energy), total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fibre, sugar and protein.

To ensure the family follows a healthy, intelligent eating diet, choose food that has no cholesterol, reduced saturated fat, preservatives and sodium (salt) and is trans-fat-free. Favour calcium, dietary fibre and good fats such as monounsaturated fat – found in avocados and peanuts – and polyunsaturated fat, which is found in salmon. Simple carbohydrates and lean proteins are also good in moderate quantities. Overall, choose products that contain less than 20 percent of the daily values for fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Nutrient reference values (NRVs) now replace the term RDA. NRVs are the recommended guideline for intelligent eating and to prevent nutrient deficiencies and disease. They help you see how a food fits into an overall daily diet. Gabi Steenkamp, a Johannesburg-based dietician and food-labelling consultant, advises that you take note of the NRVs as they apply to everyone in the family that is four years and older.

Serving size aims to keep you and your family’s food portions within healthy limits. If children are to keep a healthy weight, it is vital from a nutritional point of view that parents keep the serving to the size recommended on the packaging.

avoid trolley trash

That old saying “you are what you eat” has more than a sprinkling of truth in it. Being informed about the ingredients in food and the related health implications means you can make intelligent eating choices for your family. Here are some things to keep in mind …

watch the fats

Pay particular attention to your child’s saturated fat intake because “the effect of a poor diet on cholesterol levels is cumulative and starts in childhood,” says Steenkamp.

Saturated fat is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, weight gain and certain types of cancer. Steenkamp advises that a primary school child should consume no more than 80g of fat per day in total. “This means choosing leaner protein and dairy foods, with only one added fat to every meal your child eats.”

Trans-fatty-acids, found in  fried foods, store-bought baked goods, processed foods and certain margarines, can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and weight gain.

Read more about adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

hold the salt

Sodium increases the risk of getting cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Chicken nuggets, tinned veggies (opt for frozen veggies, if not fresh, as they will have been frozen straight from harvest), microwave meals, frozen pizzas, cured meats and even yoghurt have been shown to contain an excessive amount of salt.

A healthy daily intake of salt for a child aged one to three years old should be a little more than half a teaspoon (1 500mg), four to eight year olds should be eating just less than one teaspoon (1 900mg), nine to 13 year olds should be eating close on one teaspoon (2 200mg) and from the age of 14 and older they may eat the same as an adult – one teaspoon (2 300mg). Probably the easiest way to keep within the guidelines and control your family’s salt consumption is to cook your own meals.

limit sugar and carbs

Limit carbohydrates and added sugar if diabetes runs in the family.

Healthy cut-offs of sugar and fat consumption depend on each food category. For instance, bread with a fat content of 3g per 100g is considered a high-fat bread, but lasagne and yoghurt with this level of fat would be classed as low in fat.

beware of the additives and artificial colurants

Allergies, hyperactivity, asthma and cancer are often linked with artificial colourants and flavourants. “However,” Steenkamp says, “additives are very well controlled in South Africa. As long as you temper the miniscule amount of additives with an active lifestyle, it is fine. Also, ensure that  you mostly eat freshly made food and lots of fruit and vegetables.”

Find out more about the connection between food and allergies.

She adds that you need to know your E numbers to ensure healthy, intelligent eating. “E numbers refer to all additives to food, including vitamins and other beneficial or useful additives. For example, the E number for vitamin C is E300.”

Ready, Steady, Cook

The key to a healthy diet is fresh over instant. Plan a once-a-week fresh produce shop so that fruit and vegetables are always available in the home.

vegetables for the win

Fill half of your child’s plate with vegetables. This will improve the nutritional value of all meals – even fish fingers and oven chips become okay, according to Durban-based dietician Paula Lawson.

She says: “The busy parent who relies on prepared meals will make the nutrient composition of that pre-prepared meal so much better by abiding by the half plate of salad and veg rule.” If you are going to buy a prepared meal, Paula suggests you go for a low GI option.

food pyramid

Follow the food pyramid when serving food, says Lawson. “Portion it as follow:  a palm of protein, a fist of low GI carbs, and half a plate of salad and vegetables. Serve fresh, seasonal foods and in so doing you will automatically limit packaged, processed long-life shelf foods.”

water above all

Parents should encourage water consumption, advises Lawson. Give your children water instead of cool drinks and juices. Only offer fruit juice if it is made from 100% fruit juice blends and dilute with water.

food for thought

Regarding the order of the ingredients indicating their position on a food label, Steenkamp offers these thoughts. “If the first ingredients are wheat flour and whole wheat, the cereal is actually made of very concentrated carbohydrates in the form of flour – not exactly a cereal.

When sugar features in the first two or three ingredients,  chances are the cereal contains too much sugar,” she says. If your child insists on cereal, seek out the products that list a whole grain, but be sure to check the fibre content. Cereals should have less than 5g of sugar per serving. Cooked oats (not the instant variety) is the best breakfast for your child and is a good example of a whole grain.

Lucille Kemp