Decoding Diabetes: How to Read a Nutrition Label
Have you ever thought about how diabetes can actually help your entire family get healthier? Managing diabetes well means being disciplined and thoughtful about every food you choose, which creates a real opportunity to think more carefully about what is in the food you and your family eat.
Shopping for groceries for a family means thinking about the nutritional needs of everybody in the household—especially those with special dietary requirements. When you or someone you love lives with diabetes, you may find yourself checking labels more often to make sure your food choices are well-rounded and help with effective carb management. So, how do you use a nutrition label to pick healthy, well-rounded foods?
Here is a look at the basic elements of a nutritional label—with a special look at the carbohydrates section—to help you make better food decisions for yourself and your family every day.
Nutrition Label Basics1
Any nutrition label will contain some basic pieces of information that can help you think strategically about how a certain food fits into your diet.
As you may have experienced, nutrition labels do not always speak to an entire package. You may buy a 16 oz (453 grams) bag of crackers, for example, but the nutrition label might define one “serving” as a cup (226 grams) of crackers, which is only half the bag. Why are labels like this? It really comes down to giving you the ability to compare foods; by establishing “one serving” of certain, similar foods, it is easier to compare nutrition labels to see how one serving of another similar food stacks up.
The basic unit of energy in food is known as a kilocalorie or calorie. The calories in the foods you eat are made up of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Nutrition labels are typically made based on the assumption that you have a daily diet of 2,000 calories (kilocalories). Some labels will have a footnote that expand on this concept, providing numbers for both 2,000 and 2,500-calorie (kilocalorie) diets.
In between the line on a nutritional label for calories (kilocalories) and the footnote at the bottom is an accounting of the different nutrients in the food. Typically, a nutrition label will have different lines for:
- Total Fat, with breakdowns of both Saturated Fat and Trans Fat
- Total Carbohydrates, with breakdowns of Dietary Fiber, Sugar, and Sugar Alcohol
- Vitamins & Minerals, which are presented as a list of all the vitamins and minerals contained in the food, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron
Daily Values (Reference Intake)
On many nutrition labels, you will also find a column representing daily values (reference intake). This is often presented as a percentage, labeled % DV, and represents how much of a person’s daily intake of a given nutrient is contained in the food. For some nutrients, this percentage indicates a minimum amount you should try to get in a day. For others, it represents the maximum amount you should limit yourself to in one day.2
- What to make sure you get enough of: Vitamins and minerals, total carbohydrates (though this number may be different for people with diabetes—more on that below), and dietary fiber
- What to limit as much as possible: Total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium—too much of these can be unhealthy
With this basic understanding of food labels, you can start making more informed choices about the balance of nutrients you consume.
The Complexities of Carbohydrates
For people living with diabetes, counting carbohydrates is an important part of managing blood sugar levels. That requires a special eye for the carbohydrates section of nutrition labels. There is no one rule for how many carbs people with diabetes should eat. Experts recommend speaking to your doctor to develop an individualized meal plan with the right balance of carbs to other nutrients for your body’s needs.3
Of course, not all carbohydrates are made the same. You may notice on a nutrition label that there are several lines addressing a food’s carb contents:
- Total Carbohydrates: This line represents the total amount of carbs in one serving. This number is made up of both complex carbs like fiber and starch, and simple carbs like sugar.4
- Dietary Fiber: Some foods, like vegetables and many fruits, contain carbohydrates referred to as “dietary fiber.”5 These complex carbs slow your body’s absorption of sugar, which is very helpful for maintaining steady blood sugar levels.6 In fact, if a serving of food contains at least 5 grams of dietary fiber, you can subtract half the total dietary fiber gram count from the total carb amount when counting carbs.7
- Sugar Alcohol: While sugar alcohols do add to the total carb and calorie count for a food serving, they are often included in “sugar free” foods. Just like dietary fiber, sugar alcohol does not contribute to blood sugar as much as other forms of carbs can because they are not fully absorbed and you can subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the total carb amount for carb counting purposes.8
- Sugar: Sugar is the simplest kind of carbohydrate, meaning it is the easiest for the body to absorb. As such, sugar has the most direct impact on blood sugar. It is listed out separately from total carbs to help anybody seeking to limit sugar, like people with diabetes, find foods that fit their diets.
- Additional Sugar: Finally, some newer food labels may have an additional line under Sugar that lists anything that was added beyond the natural sugars contained in the other ingredients in the food.9
Remember: you can more effectively keep your blood sugar in the ideal range if you focus on eating foods high in dietary fiber and low in sugar. We all need carbs, even if you have diabetes, but choosing the right kinds of carbs goes a long way towards a balanced diet.
There is a lot of information that goes into a nutrition label. By learning the basic meanings of everything featured on a label and understanding the different kinds of carbs you might see listed, you can lead the way and help your entire family start making healthier choices with every meal.
Learning the language of nutrition labels is just one small part of learning the greater language of diabetes.
Download our guide, the Family Field Guide to Diabetes, for more information about the basics of the disease and how you can talk to your loved ones.
1 “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 3 Jan. 2018, www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/ucm274593.htm. Accessed October 23, 2018
2 “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 3 Jan. 2018, www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/ucm274593.htm. Accessed October 23, 2018
3 “4. Lifestyle Management: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes-2018.” American Diabetes Association, American Diabetes Association, Jan. 2018, care.diabetesjournals.org/content/41/Supplement_1/S38. Accessed October 23, 2018
4 “Simple Carbohydrates vs. Complex Carbohydrates.” Healthline, www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/simple-carbohydrates-complex-ca.... Accessed October 23, 2018
5 “22 High-Fiber Foods You Should Eat.” Healthline, www.healthline.com/nutrition/22-high-fiber-foods. Accessed October 23, 2018
6 “Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 Sept. 2015, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-dep.... Accessed October 23, 2018
7 Harding, Anne. “How to Count Carbs in 10 Common Foods.” Health.com, www.health.com/type-2-diabetes/how-to-count-carbs-in-10-common-foods#how.... Accessed October 23, 2018
8 Harding, Anne. “How to Count Carbs in 10 Common Foods.” Health.com, www.health.com/type-2-diabetes/how-to-count-carbs-in-10-common-foods#how.... Accessed October 23, 2018
9 Frey, Malia, and Richard N. Fogoros. “How to Read Nutrition Labels.” Verywell Fit, www.verywellfit.com/read-nutrition-labels-for-weight-loss-4065403. Accessed October 23, 2018