Share on Facebook

The 5 Most Critical Things to Look for on a Nutrition Label to Prevent Diabetes

So many foods purport to be healthy for us, so understanding the labels can be tricky. Here's how to decode the jargon and lower your diabetes risk.

burgerMaria Savenko/Shutterstock


Seems obvious that calories count, right? But the calories and serving size aren’t always easy to understand. First, here’s a guide to making sense of nutrition labels. “The serving size is meant to represent the average quantity that people eat. However, this can be misleading,” says Jaime Lehman, RD, CDE, Diabetes Program Coordinator for Banner Health. If a serving size is one slice of bread and you eat two, you have to multiply all the nutrition numbers by two—including calories. Being overweight or obese can mean a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Reducing weight by 5 to 7 percent can significantly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” says Kayla Jaeckel, RD, a certified diabetes educator at Diabetics and Cardiovascular Alliance, Mount Sinai Health System. The amount of calories needed daily varies on factors such as activity level and basal metabolic rate. Thankfully, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring new labels on most packaged foods by July 2018. Among other things, the new labels will be consumer friendly, featuring the calorie and serving size information more prominently.

oatmealAndrey Starostin/Shutterstock


Fiber isn’t just something to think about when you’re constipated. There’s a lot more to fiber than eating prunes to get things moving again. People who eat a fiber-rich diet tend to weight less. Fiber takes longer to digest, so you’ll feel fuller longer. And fiber plays a key role in decreasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. “Fiber is associated with increased insulin sensitivity and decreased spikes in blood sugar after eating,” says Jaeckel. When you’re reading the nutrition label, Jaeckel recommends choosing foods that have at least three grams of fiber per serving. Natural sources such as fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes are the best options. You may’ve seen products on grocery shelves that claim, “With added fiber,” or “Now with more fiber.” Eating these may seem like an easy way to reach your fiber goals of 25 to 30 grams a day, but the kind of fiber in these products can cause tummy trouble. “Although these fibers may offer similar benefits, they may not be well tolerated in large doses, so introduce these into your diet slowly,” advises Lehman. Unfortunately, the label doesn’t specify whether the fiber is naturally occurring or added, but you can take a closer look at the ingredient list to figure it out. “If you see items such as chicory root extract, inulin, pectin, cellulose, resistant starch, you will know that fiber has been added to the product,” says Lehman.



Most of us are eating way more sugar than you’d think, and having a sweet tooth isn’t just bad for your pearly whites. Annie House, RD, CDE, clinical program specialist for the Diabetes and Endocrinology/Diabetes Education at Spectrum Health says studies suggest that diets higher in sugar are linked to type 2 diabetes. “According to the dietary guidelines for Americans it’s recommended that less than 10 percent of calories per day come from added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 a day for men,” says House. Once again, deciphering the label is tricky: Sugar isn’t separated into natural and added sugars. But there are a couple ways to decode the label. One is the ingredient list. “The ingredients are listed in order based on weight with the highest first, so food products with sugar listed closer to the top of the ingredient list are generally higher sources of added sugar,” says House. In addition, if you see ingredients such as fructose, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, Maltose, corn syrup, malt syrup, agave nectar, corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup, you know sugar has been added to sweeten to the food.

pastaDoug Miles/Shutterstock


Carbohydrates are a very important nutrient in diabetes, and many people with the condition may not recognize the signs that they might be eating too many carbs. “The types of carbohydrates you choose will impact your risk for developing type 2 diabetes,” says Jaeckel. The current nutrition label lists “Total Carbohydrates,” which encompasses starches, fibers and sugars. That doesn’t make it very easy to determine how many healthy carbohydrates are in the food. (Thankfully, the new labels will list “Added Sugars” under the Total Carbohydrate section.) “The types of carbohydrates you choose will impact your risk for developing type 2 diabetes,” says Jaeckel. “Choose whole grains over refined grains at least half the time to increase your complex carbohydrate intake and decrease your diabetes risk. These choices are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes than their refined counterparts, such as white rice and white bread. Plus complex carbohydrates are higher in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients that can be protective against diabetes as well,” says Jaeckel.

friesPixel Homunculus STOCK/Shutterstock


We all know fats can send your calorie count skyward, but eating too many burgers and French fries can do more than pack on pounds. “Having too much saturated and trans-fats can contribute to abnormal cholesterol levels, which, in turn, can increase your risk for developing diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease,” says Jaeckel. You’ll find the type of fat in your food under the “Total Fat” section. Aim for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (take a look at these 5 healthy monounsaturated foods), and try to limit saturated fats. Avoid trans-fats altogether. Trans-fats are listed on the nutrition facts label—except when there is less than 0.5 gm per serving, warns Jaeckel. Check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated” oils,” she says.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.