Important Tips About the Nutrition Facts Label for People With Diabetes

As a dietitian, I always instruct my clients who are looking to reach certain health and nutrition goals to never try to make more than three major changes at once. Drastic changes to food intake or exercise usually result in eventual rebounding. I wanted to take this time to review what my tips are for interpreting the Nutrition Facts label so that you are armed with some of the information you need to decide what dietary goals to pursue.

Whether you meet with a dietitian or diabetes educator and create plans together, or you have the motivation to do it on your own, here is something to keep in mind: Being realistic is key! It is critical that your goals are in fact doable given your time, budget, and lifestyle.

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Another tip for those of us with diabetes who are also looking to maintain or improve our weight: Blood sugar management is going to be a priority, because if your blood sugars are all over the place, this can disrupt your metabolism, hunger cues, and insulin needs, which will cause erratic eating and an overall yucky feeling. Keeping blood sugar control as your number one priority will help allow all of the other positive changes you are seeking to fall right in line.

And now without further ado, here is some information to keep in mind when reviewing a Nutrition Facts label:

Serving size. Make sure you can estimate and stick to the serving size suggested on the label. Don’t ever just eat out of the box or bag, since you will almost definitely go over the serving size.

Calories. It’s important to note the source of the calories you’re thinking of eating and determine whether it is beneficial for your blood sugars and overall health.

Fat. Providing nine calories per gram, fat is an extremely important factor in weight control. And new research indicates that saturated fat may not be as bad for our bodies as we once thought. One thing is for sure — when it comes to blood sugars, fat slows down absorption of food, causing a gradual blood sugar rise instead of an immediate spike.

Sodium. Most Americans consume WAY too much sodium. One simple suggestion I have is to always purchase the low-sodium version of anything you like, at least once, to see if you even notice a difference.

Carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates may or may not have been refined (by refined I mean processed — for example, white bread, which has had most of the fiber and vitamins stripped away). Simple carbohydrates like sugar can come from things such as soda and candy, but also from fruit. However, fruit will also contain fiber and antioxidants. Fiber can help lower the overall blood sugar impact of a food.

The Nutrition Facts label, which is currently under review for some major changes, may soon separately list the amount of added sugars along with naturally occurring sugars. This should help those of us with (and without) diabetes to understand if the types of sugars we are consuming are processed and refined or if they are a natural component of the food we are eating.

Protein. This nutrient provides the main building blocks for our muscles and is key in overall health and healing. Regarding protein intake in people with diabetes, I would caution against very-high-protein diets (that is to say, a diet consisting of more than 40% to 50% of its calories from protein).

What does all of this mean when you are just trying to get your HbA1c down? Here is an easy way to remember what matters most: The three nutrients that are going to primarily affect the timing and absorption of the food you eat are fat, sugar, and fiber. My own personal nutrition rule of thumb is the 20-10-3 rule. If you are looking to eat a snack, and you want it to have minimal effect on your blood glucose, it should contain no more than 20% calories from fat, no more than 10 grams of sugar, and at least 3 grams of fiber. While this isn’t always realistic if you are eating a large meal at dinner, it’s a good rule of thumb for in-between meals to help with feeling full and keeping your blood sugar steady. Some examples of foods that follow this rule are whole-grain bread with peanut butter or hummus, or some cheese and nuts.

The immense amount of information available to us is overwhelming. Take a step back, and hang a sign on your fridge that has just THREE things you want to focus on for your blood sugar control. I promise, those things will also help with your weight and overall health goals as well.

Until next time!

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  • Barbara

    My endocrinologist once told me that there are some diabetics who are very sensitive to carbs (a rare condition) and must be very careful of the amount they consume. I am one of these people and if I ate 10 grams of carbs at a meal (whether in whole grain bread or sugar) my blood sugar would spike very high.

  • Juanita

    I have been struggling to manage my high blood sugar levels and to my absolute dismay I keep slipping back to my old habits despite making all kinds of resolutions that I would not do that. From reading your article I can see that my problem lies with trying to make too many changes at the same time. Trying to make one or two changes is so much more manageable and doable. And yes, I agree the amount of free information that is available can sometimes be overwhelming. Thanks for your easy to follow advice.