Health Library

Reading Food Labels When You Have Diabetes

Introduction

When a food comes in a package, take a look at the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list on the package. Start with the "% Daily Value" column on the food label. A food is considered low in a specific nutrient (such as fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, carbohydrate, or sodium) if it has 5% or less of the daily value. A food is considered high in that nutrient if it has 20% or more of the daily value.

Watch out for health claims on food labels. Just because a food has a health claim doesn't mean it is good for you. For example, some kinds of candy have no fat, but they have a lot of sugar.

Serving size

Look at the serving size. Is that the amount you eat in a serving? All of the nutrition information on a food label is based on that serving size, so you'll need to adjust the other numbers if you eat more or less.

Carbohydrate

Total carbohydrate is the next thing you need to look for on the label. The grams of sugar listed are included in the "Total Carbohydrate."

Two common ways to calculate carbohydrate are counting grams and counting servings.

If you count carbohydrate servings, one serving of carbohydrate is 15 grams. But most foods will not be exactly 15 grams, and most meals will not add up to a number you can divide by 15. Use the chart to help you decide whether to round up or down.

Conversion of total grams of carbohydrate into carbohydrate servings

Total grams of carbohydrate

Number of carbohydrate servings

7 to 22 1
23 to 37 2
38 to 52 3
53 to 65 4

Fat

Saturated fat and trans fat are listed on the food label. The lower the number of grams, the better. Aim for less than 7% of your total calories to be from saturated fats. For example, that's about 15 grams of saturated fat for a day during which a person eats 2,000 calories. A food is considered to be low in saturated fat if it has 1 gram or less of saturated fat and 0.5 grams or less of trans fat in each serving.

Cholesterol is listed below the fats on the food label. Aim to eat less than a total of 200 mg of cholesterol a day.

Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease. Try to eat mostly unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are types of unsaturated fat. Not all food labels list unsaturated fat. You can subtract the saturated and trans fat grams from the total fat grams to see how much fat is healthy (unsaturated) fat.

Protein

Protein comes from foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Adding a little protein that is low in saturated fat to each meal and snack can help you feel full longer.

If you have kidney damage, you may be advised to eat less protein. The food label can help you count protein grams.

Sodium

Many packaged and canned foods have a lot of sodium (salt). By limiting sodium, you may be able to control blood pressure. When you count the milligrams of sodium, aim for 1,500 mg of sodium a day or less.

Potassium

Some food labels list potassium, which is a nutrient that can help maintain a normal blood pressure.

Healthy kidneys keep the right amount of potassium in the blood to keep the heart beating at a steady pace. If you have kidney disease, potassium levels can rise and affect your heartbeat. You may be advised to eat less potassium if you have kidney disease.

Healthy eating

For specific ideas about healthier food shopping, preparation, cooking, and eating out, see the topic Healthy Eating.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Diabetes Association (2008). Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes. Diabetes Care, 31(Suppl 1): S61–S78.
  • American Diabetes Association (2013). Standards of medical care in diabetes—2013. Diabetes Care, 36(Suppl 1): S11–S66.
  • Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2011). Dietary reference intakes (DRIs): Recommended dietary allowances and adequate intakes, elements. Available online: http://iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/New%20Material/2_%20RDA%20and%20AI%20Values_Vitamin%20and%20Elements.pdf.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last Revised June 24, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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