Reading Nutrition Labels: What's Important if You Have Diabetes
Navigating nutrition labels can seem tricky if you have special dietary needs, but knowing the basics can help you quickly identify foods that are either diabetic- or not-so-diabetic-friendly.
Keep in mind that everyone has different nutritional needs, so it's a good idea talk with your doctor, dietitian or nutritionist about the following categories to make sure you know what to look for.
Carbohydrates are king when it comes to diabetes, and it's important to understand the power they have to affect your blood sugar. Carbohydrates will always be listed on standard nutrition labels, oftentimes with the categories "Total Carbohydrates" and "Net Carbohydrates." Total carbohydrates refers to the total amount of carbohydrates in the food before fiber is subtracted from the nutritional equation – which then gives you net carbohydrates. The latter category is generally the one you want to be concerned with, as well as what source the carbohydrates are coming from (refined sugar, vegetables, dairy, etc.).
The fiber content of a food can affect the total carbohydrate count as mentioned before. Foods higher in fiber will lower the net carbohydrate count and can also slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption. Fiber also helps to keep your blood sugar stable, so high-fiber foods are generally a great choice for diabetics. Current guidelines recommend about 25-38 grams of fiber per day, but you may be able to tolerate more.
Protein is essential for managing diabetes for several different reasons: It helps to increase satiety, keeping you full and less likely to snack; it helps to stabilize your blood sugar; and it enables your body to burn fat as fuel, instead of carbohydrates.
Protein will always be listed on nutrition labels, too, and it can come from a variety of sources: plants, seafood, poultry, beans, nuts or meat.
Many plant-based sources of protein can contain carbohydrates, while meat sources generally have none.
Your own protein needs will vary depending on your weight, your age and other lifestyle factors.
Sugar is another category to pay attention to on nutrition labels. Not surprisingly, sugar is something diabetics (and those without diabetes) want to avoid in general. You should also pay attention to sugar alcohols, as some research suggests these can interfere with satiety cues.
Reading labels properly should also include looking at fat content. The higher the fat, the higher the number of calories (and potential for weight gain). While healthy fats are good for hunger control, too much fat can cause problems for people with certain liver or gallbladder issues.
Source: American Diabetes Association