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Reading Food Labels: Tips from a Nutrition Educator

Siri Zimmerman shares her insights

Laura KolodjeskiLaura Kolodjeski

Siri Zimmerman

There are so many articles on selecting healthy meal options, cooking with healthier recipes, and building a well-balanced diet. Reading article after article and tip after tip can be confusing. So, I decided to turn to Tammy Randall from the Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland – you may recall I spoke with her earlier this summer. Tammy, always happy to help, connected me with Siri Zimmerman, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition Educator at the Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland, to share more on how to read food labels and a few things to watch out for. Read what Siri had to say in our interview:

Q. What are the key steps to reading a food label?

When looking at a nutrition facts label, the two most important things for a person living with diabetes, or anyone and everyone, to read are the serving size and the total carbohydrate.

  • The serving size does not tell you how much you can have, but does tell you how much of the nutrients listed are in that amount of the food.
  • Total carbohydrate tells you how many grams of carbohydrate are in the serving size listed at the top of that label.

After looking at those two things, you may need to check for sodium if you have high blood pressure or saturated fat if you have high cholesterol. Fiber is also important. If you are deciding between two brands of a product, like two different loaves of bread with similar nutrients, then choose the one with more fiber.

Q. How much is enough, when it comes to fats, protein and carbs?

  • Fats: For the average adult eating 2,000 calories per day, he or she should have no more than 65 grams of fat. Unsaturated fats actually have health benefits, so you want to choose foods with more unsaturated fat as compared to saturated fat.
  • Protein: Most Americans get more protein than they need. The recommendation for the average American is 50 grams of protein. For a more specific amount of protein that’s right for you, ask your registered dietitian.
  • Carbohydrates: Adults who eat three meals per day should take in 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal and 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrate per snack if they are hungry. The reason we don’t say how many carbohydrates to have during the whole day is because it is best to have moderate amounts of carbohydrate spread out throughout the day.  This helps to prevent high or low blood sugars.

Q. Specifically for people living with diabetes, how much sugar is too much sugar?

In the past, we used to tell people with diabetes to stay away from sugar. Now, we know that it is not just about sugar but about the total carbohydrate. If you look on a nutrition facts label, the amount of sugar is included in the total carbohydrate. If you only look at sugar and not at the total carbohydrate, you would be missing a big part of what makes your blood sugar go up. As long as you are looking at the total carbohydrate and staying within the guidelines for meals and snacks, some sugar is OK.

Q. How do you calculate the percent daily values? What does it mean?

The percent daily values listed on the right hand side of the nutrition facts label are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Unfortunately, not all of us need 2,000 calories per day.  The only time we use the percentages are for a general guideline about sodium. If you have high blood pressure and need to limit your sodium, generally you want to stay away from foods that have more than 20 percent daily value. Otherwise, use the grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates instead of the percent values.

Q. What are the most common mistakes people make when reading a label?

Sometimes when packages are very small people think the whole package is a serving, but it may be two or three servings. This is a problem when adding up calories or carbohydrates for a meal or snack.

People may have heard that you can subtract the grams of fiber from the total carbohydrate. However, you can do this only when a food has more than five grams of fiber per serving.  Then you may subtract half of the grams of fiber from the grams of total carbohydrate.

Some people use sugar to compare foods instead of the total carbohydrate. For example, when comparing cereals, some have very little sugar but are very high in total carbohydrate. Some cereals that are known for being very sweet have more sugar but are moderate in total carbohydrate. Since carbohydrates are what drive blood sugars up and not just sugar, it is very important to check for total carbohydrate.

A special thanks to Siri for sharing this great information with our readers! Also, thank you to Tammy for connecting us with Siri for this very informative interview.

We hope this was helpful to you all.  If you have additional questions or would like to share your tips on reading food labels, please leave us a comment.

All the Best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: Siri Zimmerman, MS, RD, LD is the Nutrition Educator at the Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland. Siri received no compensation for this post. Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland has previously received educational grants from sanofi‐aventis U.S. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of sanofi‐aventis U.S., its employees, agencies or affiliates.

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