Sugar content: that’s likely the first spot you check on a nutrition label when you have diabetes. It stands to reason, but looking at grams of sugar alone won’t help you make the best food choices, say diabetes nutrition experts. Instead, total carbohydrates and serving size should be your focus. Here’s why, as well as other food label lines that deserve a second glance.
This gram count includes all types of carbs: sugar, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Each type of carb affects blood glucose, so when you have diabetes you need to consider all three together. “Total carbohydrate is the best indicator of how to fit a particular food or beverage into your meal plan,” explains Toby Smithson, RDN, CDE, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator. Your doctor will help determine about how many carbs you should have per meal. Many people with diabetes will aim for about 30 to 45 grams of total carbs per meal, but your doctor can help determine the right amount for you.
What about sugar grams? Don’t focus on them, says Smithson. If you zero on that number alone, you could end up overeating foods don’t have natural or added sugars, such as certain cereals and grains, but that do have lots of carbohydrates. Or, you might skip healthy foods like fruit, yogurt, and milk, which have natural sugars, but also loads of important vitamins and minerals.
All of the info on the nutrition label is based on the serving size listed at the top. Eat twice the serving size (not an uncommon habit for, say, your favorite box of crackers) and you consume double the calories, carbs, fat and other ingredients. For people with diabetes, being aware of the serving size is important so you can keep an accurate count on the carbs you’re consuming and keep your blood sugar steady, says Smithson.
Because fiber helps slow down the absorption of more simple carbohydrates, eating foods rich in fiber can help keep your hunger and blood sugar in check, explains Smithson. Any food that contains more than 5 grams of fiber per serving is considered an excellent source of fiber, says
Jessica Crandall, RDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; more than 3 grams of fiber per serving is considered a good source. Overall, women should try to eat about 25 grams of fiber per day; for men, the recommendation is 38 grams per day.
This is particularly helpful when you’re comparing labels on grain products, says Smithson. Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber—they’re a much healthier choice than foods made with “refined” or “enriched” flour. Look for whole wheat flour, bulgar, or whole oats as a first ingredient on the list to ensure the grains you’re buying are truly whole.
You should also eyeball the ingredients list for things you want to avoid—namely, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These are high in trans fats, a bad fat that can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke. Type 2 diabetes is already a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so you want to limit these unhealthy fats. Heart-healthier options include olive, canola, or peanut oils.
Even though sodium doesn’t directly affect your blood sugar levels, most of us eat way more than we should (and most of that comes from sneakily high sodium levels in processed foods, like condiments, snacks, bread, and more). Too much sodium in your diet can up your blood pressure; high blood pressure raises your risk of heart attack and stroke. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes aim to have 2,300 mg or less per day. If you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may suggest you aim to consume even less sodium per day.
Don’t let that stamp be your only guide, for one very good reason: Sugar-free doesn’t automatically mean carb-free. The sugar in “sugar-free” products may be replaced with sweet-tasting substances called sugar alcohols, which are still high in carbohydrate. The same is true for “no sugar added” claims; even though no sugar was added during processing, the food may still be high in carbs.
When you're choosing between standard and sugar-free items, compare the total carbohydrates to help you decide. Taste may factor in as well, adds Crandell. Food made with sugar substitutes may have an unpleasant aftertaste in some cases, she says; and overeating foods with sugar alcohols can cause digestive issues.
Included in this count per serving are the good-for-you fats, like mono and polyunsaturated fats, as well as the not-so-good saturated and trans fats. People with diabetes should try to cut down on saturated fat and avoid trans fats to help reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, says Smithson. To help limit your sat fat intake, check out the percent daily value (% DV) on the label and choose foods with 5% DV or less saturated fat per serving, she advises.
For more diabetes nutrition tips, read these next:
Our newsletter has latest nutrition tricks and recipes, workout inspo, and
health tips from docs and wellness experts. Get it daily.