The COVID virus responsible for sickening and killing millions is fast fading from the public’s attention. However, recent studies indicate illiteracy rates that declined during the pandemic continue to compromise the health of Black patients with poor reading skills. 

For example, complex surgeries that were once performed in full-service hospitals, are now routinely done in ambulatory surgicenters. These outpatient procedures can feel rushed and offer a significantly reduced level of post-operative care. Surgicenters rely heavily on the patient or their caregiver’s ability to read and understand the written medical instructions given at discharge. 

The reading level required to properly access discharge mandates and directions stands in stark contrast to a snapshot of Baltimore City’s subpar literacy rates. The Associated Press (AP) reports, “within the Baltimore City Public Schools, only 13 percent of fourth graders tested at or above proficient in reading in 2019.” 

This dismal statistic is pre-pandemic. It was collected just prior to COVID’s 18-to-24-month interruption of classroom reading instruction, which the AP predicts will put failing students further behind their peers.

Illiteracy is a global problem, begging for attention and the development of innovative technology driven solutions. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) study reports in “2020, children experiencing reading difficulties jumped from 460 million to 584 million worldwide, a rise of more than 20 per cent.”

These low literacy numbers conflict with a health care system that depends increasingly on a patient population who can read, comprehend and effectively implement their provider’s instructions. An illiterate patient who misreads the directions for their prescription medication is at risk for serious or life-threatening illness.

UNESCO writes “Literacy empowers and liberates people.” An individual’s ability to read can break several barriers to wellness. For instance, time spent reading and gathering useful information printed on virtually all food labels can increase awareness of how and why good nutrition is essential to our lives. Food labels can provide the following:

  • Nutritional Information: Food labels provide valuable information about the nutritional content of a product. This includes details about calories, serving sizes, macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), vitamins, minerals, and more. Understanding these values can help you make informed decisions about the nutritional quality of the food and how it fits into your diet.
  • Allergen Awareness: Food labels list common allergens present in the product. For people with food allergies or sensitivities, reading labels is crucial to avoid consuming ingredients that could trigger an allergic reaction. Allergens like nuts, dairy, eggs, soy and gluten are often clearly indicated on labels.
  • Dietary Restrictions: If you’re following a specific diet, such as vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, or keto, reading labels helps ensure that the food aligns with your dietary needs and restrictions.
  • Portion Control: Food labels include serving size information, which is essential for controlling portion sizes and managing calorie intake. Often, people consume more than the listed serving size, leading to overeating and an inaccurate assessment of the nutritional content they’re consuming.
  • Ingredients List: The ingredients list reveals what the product is made of. This is important for avoiding certain ingredients you might want to limit or avoid, such as artificial preservatives, additives, or excessive amounts of sugar and unhealthy fats.
  • Healthier Choices: By reading food labels, you can compare different products and make healthier choices. You can opt for products with lower amounts of saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. You can also prioritize foods that are higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Understanding Food Claims: Food packaging often contains marketing claims like “low-fat,” “organic,” or “high in fiber.” Reading the labels helps you verify these claims and determine if they are accurate and meaningful.
  • Weight Management: For those aiming to manage their weight, reading food labels aids in tracking calorie intake and making mindful choices to maintain a balanced diet.
  • Educational Tool: Reading food labels can be a great way to educate yourself about nutrition. Over time, you’ll become more familiar with various nutrients, recommended daily values and what constitutes a well-rounded diet.
  • Transparency and Empowerment: As a consumer, reading food labels empowers you to take control of your food choices. It allows you to make decisions based on accurate information rather than relying solely on packaging or advertising.

Reading food labels is a key step toward making informed and healthy food choices. It helps you understand what you’re putting into your body, avoid allergens or ingredients you want to avoid and work toward your nutritional and dietary goals.

Jayne Hopson
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