Reading food labels when you have diabetes

Because you have diabetes, you need to know the nutrient content of the packaged foods you eat. All the information you need to know is included on its label.

Serving size

Serving size is the first thing you need to look at on the food label. The number given may or may not be what you would typically consume at a snack or meal. Keep in mind that all of the information on the label is based on the serving size stated at the top—if you would typically consume twice that amount, you need to multiply all of the numbers that are given on the remainder of the label by 2.

Total 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."

Next, determine how many carbohydrate choices this food would provide (for the number of servings you would consume). Seldom are there exactly 15 g of carbohydrate or exactly 30 g. The number is often somewhere in between, so it may be difficult for you to decide if the food should be counted as one carbohydrate choice or two.

The chart below gives ranges to help you determine how to count these foods as carbohydrate choices. In order to be as accurate as possible, calculate the total grams of carbohydrate for all foods included in the meal, and then determine how many carbohydrate choices are provided by that meal.

The grams of dietary fiber are also included in the grams of total carbohydrate; however, because fiber is not broken down into glucose (as other sources of carbohydrate are), it does not affect blood sugar levels. As a general rule, if a packaged product has five or more grams of dietary fiber, you can subtract that number from the total grams of carbohydrate.

Conversion of total grams of carbohydrate into carbohydrate choices

Total grams of carbohydrate

Number of carbohydrate choices

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

Reminder: 15 g of carbohydrate equals 1 carbohydrate choice.

Fat content

The next item you need to look for on the food label is total fat. As a general rule, to keep your fat intake at an appropriate level, you should choose foods that provide no more than 3 grams of fat per carbohydrate choice (15 g of carbohydrate); so if the product has 45 g of carbohydrates (three choices), it should contain 9 or fewer grams of fat.

For more specific guidelines for total grams of fat that should be consumed per day based on various levels of caloric intake, see the table below.

  • The values for grams of fat are determined based on 30% of the total calories being contributed by fat. These are upper limits for fat intake. For optimal health, you should not exceed these limits regularly.
  • Saturated fat, listed beneath total fat, should contribute less than one-third of the total fat consumed in the diet; for example, if a product has 9 grams of fat, it should have less than 3 grams of saturated fat.
  • Cholesterol, which is on the next line down on the food label, should be less than 300 mg per day.
Recommended daily total fat intake based on calories

Total number of calories per day

Total grams of fat per day

1,600 50
1,800 60
2,000 65
2,200 70
2,500 80

Sodium content

If you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, you may need to look at the sodium content of the food product as well. For the general population, no more than 2300 mg of sodium is recommended per day. If you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, your sodium allowance may be lower. Your health professional can recommend a level that is right for you.

Questions for reading food labels

See a picture of a food label and answer the following questions.

  • What is the serving size for this product?
  • How many grams of carbohydrate would you be getting if you ate one serving?
  • Does this product meet the guidelines given for fat?
  • Does this product meet the guidelines given for saturated fat?
  • Is this product a good source of fiber?
  • Which food group in the diabetes food pyramid would this product fall under?

Answers: 1 cup; 31; No, it contains 12 grams of fat and should only contain 6 since it is 2 carbohydrate choices; Yes, it contains 3 grams of saturated fat, which is less than 1/3 of total fat content; No, it contains no fiber; Grains, beans, and starchy vegetables.

Credits

Author Judy Dundas
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David C.W. Lau, MD, PhD, FRCPC - Endocrinology & Metabolism
Last Updated July 22, 2009

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