Reading Food Labels When You Have Diabetes
When a food comes in a package, take a look at the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list on the package. Start with the "% Daily Value" column on the food label. A food is considered low in a specific nutrient (such as fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, or sodium) if it has 5% or less of the daily value. A food is considered high in that nutrient if it has 20% or more of the daily value.
Watch out for health claims on food labels. Just because a food has a health claim doesn't mean it is good for you. For example, some kinds of candy have no fat, but they have a lot of sugar.
Look at the serving size. Is that the amount you eat in a serving? All of the nutrition information on a food label is based on that serving size, so you'll need to adjust the other numbers if you eat more or less.
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."
Two common ways to calculate carbohydrate are counting grams and counting servings.
If you count carbohydrate servings, one serving of carbohydrate is 15 grams. But most foods will not be exactly 15 grams, and most meals will not add up to a number you can divide by 15. Use the chart to help you decide whether to round up or down.
Total grams of carbohydrate
Number of carbohydrate servings
7 to 22
23 to 37
38 to 52
53 to 65
Saturated fat and trans fat are listed on the food label. The lower the number of grams, the better. Aim for less than 7% of your total calories to be from saturated fats. For example, that's about 15 grams of saturated fat for a day during which a person eats 2,000 calories. A food is considered to be low in saturated fat if it has 1 gram or less of saturated fat and 0.5 grams or less of trans fat in each serving.
Saturated fat and trans fat increase your risk of heart disease. Try to eat mostly unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are types of unsaturated fat. Not all food labels list unsaturated fat. You can subtract the saturated and trans fat grams from the total fat grams to see how much fat is healthy (unsaturated) fat.
Protein comes from foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Adding a little protein that is low in saturated fat to each meal and snack can help you feel full longer.
If you have kidney damage, you may be advised to eat less protein. The food label can help you count protein grams.
Many packaged and canned foods have a lot of sodium (salt). Most people shouldn't eat more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. If you have high blood pressure, limit your sodium to 1,500 mg a day. This can help lower your blood pressure.
Some food labels list potassium, which is a nutrient that can help maintain a normal blood pressure.
Healthy kidneys keep the right amount of potassium in the blood to keep the heart beating at a steady pace. If you have kidney disease, potassium levels can rise and affect your heartbeat. You may be advised to eat less potassium if you have kidney disease.
For specific ideas about healthier food shopping, preparation, cooking, and eating out, see the topic Healthy Eating.
Other Works Consulted
- American Diabetes Association (2017). Standards of medical care in diabetes—2017. Diabetes Care, 40(Suppl 1): S1–S135.
- American Diabetes Association (2013). Nutrition therapy recommendations for the management of adults with diabetes. Diabetes Care, 36(11): 3821–3842. DOI: 10.2337/dc13-2042. Accessed December 5, 2013.
- Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2011). Dietary reference intakes (DRIs): Recommended dietary allowances and adequate intakes, elements. Available online: http://iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/New%20Material/2_%20RDA%20and%20AI%20Values_Vitamin%20and%20Elements.pdf.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 8th ed. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed January 12, 2016.
Current as of: December 20, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Colleen O'Connor PhD, RD - Registered Dietitian