Reading Food Labels

Food labels can help you keep track of basic nutrition information—at least for prepared foods and most of the ingredients you use when you cook at home. 

Just remember that the number on a food label— for fat, carbohydrate, etc.— is for each serving, not the amount found in the whole can, box, or other type of package in which the food comes. Here are some of the nutrition facts found on labels that can help you manage diabetes.

Total Carbohydrates

For a person with diabetes, one of the most important categories on a food label is the “total carbohydrate” number. Your healthcare provider has probably recommended that you limit the number of carbohydrates you eat at each meal to prevent sudden changes in blood glucose levels. The total carbohydrate number found on food labels includes sugar, complex carbohydrate, and fiber. The American Diabetes Association recommends 45 to 60 grams of total carbs per meal.


People who are trying to lose or maintain weight often find it helpful to keep track of how many calories they consume. When shopping, comparing calories and nutrients found in similar products might help you decide which to purchase. To find out how many calories you need every day, based on your age and activity level, go to To lose weight at the rate of approximately one pound per week, you need to “drop” 500 calories a day from your total.


A food label will tell you how much total fat the food contains. The listing includes both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the “healthy” fats) plus saturated and trans fats (the “unhealthy” fats). Even though your body needs some healthy fats, it is still important to pay close attention to how much you are eating every day. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes eat less than 15 grams of saturated fat a day.


The American Dietetic Association recommends that women—whether diabetic or not—eat 25 grams of fiber a day and men eat 38 grams up to age 50. After age 50 women need 21 grams per day and men need 30.


Sodium doesn’t affect blood glucose levels but it does affect blood pressure. And since as many as two out of three people with diabetes also have high blood pressure your healthcare provider may recommend that you limit your sodium intake. The American Diabetes Association recommends choosing foods with less than 400 mg of sodium per serving.


Reading the ingredients list on foods helps you avoid ingredients that you prefer to avoid. The most obvious ingredients to avoid are saturated fats—such as coconut oil or palm oil—and hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats.