If you have diabetes, eating the right foods is key to staying healthy. Reading the Nutrition Facts labels on foods is an important first step. You know that many foods can either help or hurt your health. And those labels can help you make the right decisions.
Nutrition facts labels are on all prepared foods by law. You may also see nutrition facts labels on raw fruits, legumes and vegetables, and on fish. The FDA oversees the safety of foods and beverages. This agency also says what information must be listed on the labels. These labels have a lot of information. They show the amount of sugar, carbohydrates, sodium, cholesterol, dietary fiber, different types of fats, some vitamins, and other information.
Keep in mind that the amounts listed on a nutrition label are for a single serving, not the entire package. Check the serving size. The package may contain more servings than you realize. The percentages on the label are for either a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet. Here’s a guide to what’s on a label:
Serving size. This is the amount for 1 serving of the food. All the values on the label are based on 1 serving size.
Servings per container. This is how many servings are in the package.
Calories. This is the number of calories in 1 serving.
Calories from fat. This is the number of calories that come just from the fat in the food.
% Daily value. This is what percent the values are of a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
Total fat. This is how much of all types of fats are in 1 serving. This includes the fats listed below.
Saturated fat. This is how much saturated fat is in 1 serving. Saturated fat is an unhealthy fat.
Monounsaturated fat. This is how much monounsaturated fat is in 1 serving. Monounsaturated fat is a healthy fat.
Polyunsaturated fat. This is how much polyunsaturated fat is in 1 serving. Polyunsaturated fat is a healthy fat.
Trans fat. This is how much trans fat is in 1 serving. Trans fat is an unhealthy fat.
Cholesterol. This is how much cholesterol is in 1 serving. Cholesterol is unhealthy in large amounts.
Sodium. This is how much sodium is in 1 serving. Sodium is unhealthy in large amounts.
Total carbohydrate. This means all types of carbohydrates in the food. It includes sugar, nonsugar carbohydrates, and fiber.
Dietary fiber. This refers to the type of fiber that is hard for the body to digest. Fiber is healthy.
Sugars. This includes natural sugars and sugars that were added when the food was made. Sugar is unhealthy in large amounts.
Sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are replacements for sugar in sugar-free foods. They don’t affect blood sugar levels as much as regular sugar. They include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and maltitol. Too much of these can cause nausea and diarrhea.
Protein. This is how much protein is in 1 serving. Protein is an important building block of the body.
Other nutrients. Near the bottom of the label, nutrients, such as vitamins, calcium, and iron, are listed. The percent values listed are for the recommended daily value for that nutrient. The FDA requires that the amounts of vitamin D and potassium are listed.
When you have diabetes, it’s important to keep your blood sugar at healthy levels. This means eating foods relatively low in carbohydrates. A second goal is to eat heart-healthy. This is because people with diabetes have a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. To eat heart-healthy, you’ll need to limit sodium, cholesterol, and unhealthy fats. When you get in the habit of reading labels, you’ll find many foods have versions that are better for you. Plus, some foods also have an American Heart Association (AHA) Heart-Check label. This means that the food meets the AHA rules for being a heart-healthy food.
Know about carbs. All carbs are not the same. Carbohydrates may be sugars, starches, or fiber. Look at the Total Carbohydrate number on the label to see the total amount of carbohydrates in the food.
Choose low sodium. Many high-sodium foods come in low-sodium or salt-free versions. You can find low-sodium versions of cheeses, deli meats, soups, bread, crackers, and nuts.
Go low cholesterol. And many foods are naturally low in cholesterol or have no cholesterol. Foods from plants have no cholesterol—and they have the dietary fiber you need.
Look for low-fat and healthy fats. Look for foods that have lower amounts of saturated fat and trans fat. Pick foods with healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. And you can find fat-free versions of some foods that normally have less-healthy fats. For example, you can find fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and sour cream. But be sure that your "fat-free" food choices are not simply "high-carb" foods in disguise. All food sold in the U.S. was free of added trans fats as of June 2018.
A food package may say “low sodium” or “low sugar” on the front, but what does that mean? The FDA has legal definitions for these terms. Here’s a guide for understanding the claims on the box or bag:
What it means
It has at least 25% less sugar per serving than the regular version of that food.
It has less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving.
“No sugar added”
No sugar has been put into the food. It may still contain natural sugars.
It has at least 25% less sodium than the regular version of that food.
It has 140 mg of sodium or less and is 5% or less of the total daily sodium.
It has less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
It has at least 25% less fat than the regular version of that food.
It has 3 g or less of total fat (this includes all types of fats).
It has less than 0.5 g of total fat (this includes all types of fats).
“Low saturated fat”
It has 1 g or less of saturated fat.
“Saturated fat free”
It has less than 0.5 g of saturated fat.
“Trans fat free”
It has less than 0.5 g trans fat.
It has at least 25% less cholesterol than the regular version of that food.
It has 20 mg or less per serving.
It has less than 2 mg per serving.
“Good source of fiber”
It has 2.5 g to 4.9 g of fiber per serving.
It has 5 g or more of fiber per serving.
Plan your meals and make a grocery list before you go shopping.
Stick to your list and read labels before you buy foods.
Limit foods high in unhealthy carbs, sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat.
Look for sugar-free and low-fat foods.