Reading a food label may feel like you are reading a mystery novel. Don’t worry though; this is a mystery you can solve! Food labels provide a wealth of information that can make it easier for you to pick healthy foods that fit into your meal plan. When you have diabetes, it’s especially important to use the information on the food label to help you stay healthy.
Why look at the Food Label?
The nutrition facts label tells you more than the ingredients in a food. You can find out exactly how much salt you get when you eat a bag of popcorn, or you might be wondering how many carbs are in your favorite cereal. There may be foods that you have avoided simply because you weren’t sure if they would fit in your meal plan. Being familiar with the information on food labels allows you to try different foods.
- Serving Size: is the amount of food being analyzed on the label. It is a common mistake to think that the calories listed on the label are for the whole bag or box. Look at the serving size to determine how much food you actually get for the values listed on the label.
- Calories & Calories from Fat: ideally the calories from fat will be less than 30% of the total calories, meaning that the product is low in fat and heart healthy. Total calories will vary for different foods.
- Fat: lists the total fat/serving of food and tells you the specific kind of fat that is in the food, i.e., trans fat, saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. It is best to choose foods with limited trans and saturated fat to prevent heart disease.
- Cholesterol: a type of lipid or fat found in food from animals. You want to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat. In general, you should not have more than 300 mg each day.
- Sodium: another name for salt. It is best to limit the amount of sodium in your diet to reduce the risk of high blood pressure & heart disease.
- Total Carbohydrates: list the total amount of fiber and sugar in a food. For people with diabetes it’s important to choose foods with high fiber and low sugar for better blood glucose control. The daily recommendation for fiber is 25-35 grams. Beware of foods that claim to be “sugar free” on the front of the box, they may not be “carbohydrate free”. Remember it’s the carbs that affect your blood sugar.
- % Daily Value: this percentage is specific to a 2000 calorie diet, partly because health experts felt 2000 calories represents the amount many people need who are trying to maintain weight loss. The total carbs per serving on this label are 12 grams, 4% of the daily value needed for a person who is following a 2000 calorie diet.
At the bottom of the label is more info on the percent daily values based on both a 2000 and 2500 calorie meal plans.
- The limit is 65 grams & 20 grams for fat and saturated fat per day respectively on a 2000 calorie diet.
- The maximum amount of sodium recommended on either a 2000 or 2500 calorie diet is 2400 mg daily.
- The recommended 25-30 grams of fiber would have to be met from foods like whole grains, fruits and veggies. The daily limit for carbs is 300-375 grams.
The Bottom Line
The nutrients at the top of the food label, total fat, cholesterol, & sodium should be limited to reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Look at the total carbohydrate value to determine if the carbohydrate content of the food will fit into your meal plan. If you are limited to 60 carbs per meal, it’s not a good idea to buy bagels that are 70 grams per serving. Use the % daily values as a tool for healthy meal planning, but remember that your requirements may be higher or lower based on your calorie needs.
When it comes to food labels & diabetes management you have what it takes to solve the mystery.
Sejal is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and she holds a masters degree in nutrition and health. Sejal was the project coordinator for the Veteran’s Administrations (VA) national weight loss program and previously worked for the VA hospital in Tampa, FL as a Spinal Cord Injury dietitian.
Sejal has had numerous clinical and community education experiences, including pediatric and intensive care nutrition support. She has also had the opportunity to teach nutrition courses at the community college level to students interested in pursuing health professions. One of her favorite areas of education is diabetes management.