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How to Read Food Labels

How to Read Food Labels

Reading labels helps you make food choices that promote your health

To make sure you're making the most appropriate food choices, you should plan your meals ahead of time and carefully read food labels when shopping. Almost all packaged food includes a list of nutritional information in a section called "Nutrition Facts." You'll find this information extremely helpful in managing your own blood glucose levels, as well as in planning for eating healthy.

Read the label

The Nutrition Facts label defines a serving size and then gives the amounts of different nutrients per serving. You should check each of the following items:

  • Total Calories
  • Calories from Fat
  • Total Fat/Saturated Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total Carbohydrate/Dietary Fiber/Sugars
  • Trans fats

Total amounts are shown in grams, abbreviated as "g," or in milligrams, indicated as "mg." One ounce contains about 29 grams of weight, and a milligram weighs one-thousandth of that. Grams are used for carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Milligrams are used for things like sodium, vitamins, and minerals.

Pay particular attention to the list of ingredients on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. That means that the first ingredient makes up the largest proportion of the food. If something you're trying to avoid - such as saturated fat-laden coconut oil, for example - is one of the first ingredients listed on the label, you should usually avoid that food. Instead look for the foods you buy to be mainly composed of healthier ingredients.

If you're trying to lose weight or control your current weight, it's important to look at the calories. Use the labels to compare similar foods and determine which ones contain fewer calories per serving. Remember, if you eat twice the serving listed on the label, double the calories and all the other ingredient amounts. To find out how many calories you need each day, talk to your diabetes educator. The number depends on such factors as your age, gender, how active you are, and so on.

When selecting day-to-day foods, avoid products that contain simple sugars (dextrose, sucrose, fructose, etc.), saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium, which can be bad for your blood glucose, heart, and blood pressure. Do look for foods with plenty of fiber, which comes from such ingredients as whole wheat or bran. Foods high in fiber help your digestive system and may improve your cholesterol. High fiber meals can even help manage the rise in your blood glucose as you digest a meal. Remember, you need the same amount of fiber as anyone else, about 25-30 grams a day.

Good and bad fats

Just about everyone seems concerned these days all the amount of fat in their diet - but believe it or not, fats are not always bad for you. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are good for you and can actually help lower your blood cholesterol and protect your heart. It's the saturated fats - such as lard - and the trans fats - such as solid margarine - that do not benefit your health and may have bad effects on your cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats, like vegetable oil, are healthier than saturated fats but should be used in moderation. So some fat is good - as long of it's the right kind of fat. Just don't make fat calories too big a part of your diet.

If you're trying to lose weight, you should limit the amount of calories you take in, including all those calories from fat.

"Fat-free" foods do not necessarily help your diet, if the fat is replaced with carbohydrates, which is what happens in fat-free cookies. Sometimes, when you choose something with a label that makes it sound like a healthy food (like "fat-free"), you can get into trouble with too many calories or other ingredients that work against your diabetes health. So read labels consistently when you shop.

Watch for sodium

Although sodium (salt) does not affect your diabetes directly, it can raise your blood pressure. Read labels to compare the sodium in different foods. You'd be amazed how much salt can be found in many packaged and frozen foods! Most people with diabetes or high blood pressure will benefit from taking in no more than 2000 mg of sodium per day. If you avoid processed foods and substitute things like herbs for salt, you can avoid the extra sodium that you don't need.

What about carbohydrates?

As you probably know, current dieting trends have made avoiding carbohydrates ("carbs") very "in" these days. Regardless of fads, monitoring your carbohydrate intake can help you control your blood glucose. But you don't want to limit carbs too severely.

Here again, the food label provides you with the information you need to plan your meals ahead of time. First, look at the grams of total carbohydrates, not just the grams of sugar. Total carbohydrates on the label will include complex carbohydrates (starch), simple carbohydrates (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, etc.), and fiber. All three have a place in your diet. While you may want to avoid too much added sugar, you don't want to leave out all foods with simple carbohydrates. If you did, you would wind up not eating nutritious foods like fruits and milk. And while you may want to emphasize complex carbohydrates, you don't want to end up consuming too many cereals and grains at the expense of other carbohydrate foods.

Grams of fiber are counted as part of the total carbohydrate. However, if a food has 5 grams or more of fiber in a serving, you can subtract the fiber grams from the total grams of carbohydrate to get a more accurate estimate of the carbohydrate impact on your diet. For example, you may see that a breakfast cereal has 21 grams of carbohydrate per serving, but also 6 grams of fiber. So you could consider it only 15 grams of carbohydrate for meal planning purposes. Bottom line: fiber helps you.

Now, suppose you see the words "sugar-free" on the package. Are you home free? Not necessarily. Read carefully to determine the total grams of carbohydrates and total calories. "Sugar-free" does not mean calorie-free or carbohydrate-free. "No sugar added" means the product does not have any form of sugar put in during processing. But these foods can be high in carbohydrates nevertheless

"Free" food

Finally, check labels to see if you're eating a "free food." Free foods are those with fewer than 20 calories and virtually no carbohydrates per serving, such as sugar-free gelatins, diet soft drinks, and sugarless gum. These can help you control both your blood glucose and your weight, because they can satisfy your thirst or hunger with few calories or carbs. But it's probably best not to rely too heavily on them. You want to make your meals and snacks count nutritionally, choosing healthy foods.

The bottom line: By reading labels carefully, you'll be better able to make food choices that promote your diabetes health.


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