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updated: 4/26/2011 2:03 PM

Trust labels, not box front claims

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Q. When the label of a food or supplement says that it supports the immune system, does that mean it will help prevent cancer or does it refer only to fighting off colds and flu?

A. Here's the confusing part for shoppers: it doesn't necessarily mean the food or supplement will do either one.

These statements don't say the product prevents any specific disease or health problem and they do not have to be reviewed or authorized by any government or regulatory body. To a shopper, it may sound like such a food would help prevent or treat some sort of medical problem, but these phrases are created so they don't actually say that.

A food or supplement company might make a "structure/function claim" like this one because a product contains vitamin A, C, B-6, D or E, for example. But the food might contain as little as 10 percent of the recommended daily amount of one of these nutrients.

Actually, our immune systems require a host of nutrients, including enough protein and calories to produce antibodies, in order to function well. Try not to get distracted by claims like this on the front of food packages.

Focus on choosing plenty of unprocessed whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, and check the Nutrient Facts panel for sodium, fiber or fat content information. Don't let front-of-package claims that may have questionable support convince you to pay more for something that's not really better or to buy something unhealthy hoping it could actually be good for you.

Q. I know I need to get more active, but I don't have anyone to watch my kids while I work out, and I don't get much exercise when I try to do it with them. What do other parents do?

A. First, don't automatically assume that you can't get moderate or even vigorous activity with your children. It may just be that you need to be creative about finding a kind of activity that you can do with them that allows you to move at a pace that is energizing for you.

Depending on their ages, look up some games from library books or websites that might have you moving more or faster than they need to. Try to be open-minded about all the ways you can move with your children, from dancing to tag and hide-and-seek.

If your children are very young, you may find that pushing them in a stroller, biking with them in a trailer or walking with a baby in a carrier on your back could turn what seems like very modest activity into more exercise than you realize. For some activities, children's attention spans may not allow a long workout, but that's OK. You achieve health benefits from physical activity even when you accumulate it in blocks of 10 or 15 minutes at a time. On the other hand, part of the benefit of physical activity is also the wonderful stress relief of letting your mind escape, so time without keeping an eye on the kids may bring extra benefits.

How about taking turns watching the kids with another parent while one of you works out? If the expense of a baby sitter is too much, you can also check out fitness or community centers in your area that offer child care.

Remember, by showing your children the importance of taking time to be active, you are setting a powerful example for their health!

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its New American Plate Program at aicr.org.

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