How to Read Food Labels for Diabetics

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Reading food labels is crucial for managing diabetes because it empowers you to make informed choices about what you eat. By understanding what’s on a label, you can manage your blood sugar levels more effectively and make informed decisions that support your overall health.

The main culprits for blood sugar spikes are carbohydrates. When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar for energy which causes blood sugar levels to rise. Other factors like protein and fat can also play a role in how food impacts blood sugar, but carbs generally have the biggest influence.

Let’s dive into the most important things to look at on food labels to ensure you are on the right path to consistent and steady blood sugars.

Decoding food labels

Serving size

The first thing to look at on food labels is always the serving size. The serving size will tell you the portion of the product that the rest of the numbers on the label are referring to. Some labels can be tricky as some foods that may look like a single serving could contain multiple servings per container.

For example, a small bag of chips might contain 2 servings. This means that if you eat the entire bag, you would have to double all of the information on the food label.

Ingredients list

The next thing to take a look at is the ingredients list. The ingredients list is in descending order with the most prominent ingredients listed first. By scanning the ingredient list, you can spot potential allergens and unnecessary additives, which can help you make informed choices to align with your dietary needs and preferences.

Nutrients to focus on

Next, let’s take a look at five of the most important nutrients on food labels.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the foods that turn into sugar in our bodies. When you eat foods that contain carbs, they will cause the blood sugar to rise. When you have diabetes, if you are eating large portions of carbs, blood sugar might spike higher than the ideal range.

You’ll notice that sugar and fiber are indented under total carbohydrates on food labels. This is because sugar and fiber are both types of carbohydrates and therefore they are already accounted for in the total carbohydrate number.

This means that if something is higher in sugar, it will automatically be higher in carbohydrates as well. While we should still be mindful and not ignore the added sugar in foods, it is already accounted for in the total carbs.

Fiber

Fiber is most often found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and nuts. If a food item has 5 or more grams of fiber per serving, it is considered a high-fiber food.

Fiber is important for gut health, heart health, keeping us full and balancing blood sugars. It is recommended to aim for 25-35 grams of fiber daily.

Fats

While fats do not have a large impact on blood sugar, there is a link between diabetes and heart disease. For this reason, it is important to try to focus on eating healthy fats and limiting unhealthy fats for heart health.

Fats get a bad rap sometimes, but they are an essential part of a healthy diet. The key is understanding the difference between healthy (unsaturated) and unhealthy (saturated) fats.

Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated fats which are found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds and polyunsaturated fats which are found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and some vegetable oils. These fats can improve heart health by lowering cholesterol.

Unhealthy, saturated fats can raise cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. These fats are found in fatty meats, butter, cheese, and some processed foods.

Trans fats are another type of unhealthy fat that can cause more damage to the heart than any other type of fat. Trans fats are often listed as “partially hydrogenated oils” on the food label and should be avoided.

Protein

Protein is important for building and maintaining muscle and for overall satiety. The amount of protein on the food label can help you gauge how much protein you’re getting per serving. Seven grams of protein on the food label is equivalent to about one ounce of protein.

Examples of healthy sources of protein include lean meat and poultry, fatty fish, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, tofu, protein powder, and low-fat dairy products such as Greek yogurt.

Sodium

If you have diabetes, you may also be at risk for high blood pressure so monitoring sodium intake is important. It is recommended to limit sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day.

Clearing up food label confusion

Sometimes food labels can be misleading and hard to understand. Some brands will purposely do this for marketing purposes. Be sure to watch out for the following:

Food claims

Many food labels will have claims to make their product appear healthier than it is. Some common food claims that you might see are low-fat or fat-free.

Low-fat means a serving of the food has less than 3 grams of fat. While it’s lower in fat, it doesn’t necessarily mean its nutrient profile is healthy overall.

Fat-free means that the food has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Again, while the product may be low in fat, that does not necessarily mean it is low in other potentially harmful ingredients and when manufacturers remove fat from a food, it can often affect taste and texture. To compensate, they may add sugar or other artificial sweeteners.

Hidden sugars

Sugar goes by many different names such as sucrose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, honey and agave nectar which can make it tricky to spot on a food label. If it ends in “ose” (like sucrose or fructose), it’s likely a form of sugar.

Always make sure to scan the ingredient list and to look for “added sugars” on the label. This tells you exactly how many grams of sugar have been added during processing versus what is naturally occurring in the food.

Percent daily value (%DV)

The percent daily value is based on a standard 2,000-calorie diet. This might not perfectly match your individual needs, but it provides a general benchmark. The percent daily value tells you what percentage of the recommended daily value for a specific nutrient is found in one serving of that food. For example, if a food has 10% DV for sodium, it means one serving provides 10% of the recommended daily intake of sodium based on that 2,000-calorie standard.

This can be misleading for many people because a 2,000-calorie diet is not ideal for everyone. It is always best to check the actual amount of specific nutrients in the product.

In summary

Using food labels to guide healthy choices for blood sugar control and overall health is crucial for people with diabetes. Always start by looking at the serving size and be mindful of tricks and marketing ploys that some companies may use to make their products appear to be healthy options.

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