The Diabetic Diet and Food Labels: What You Should Know

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A diabetic diet and food labels go hand-in-hand. It is important for diabetics to learn how to read food labels, what to look for and what to avoid in the foods they select. No assumptions can be made about the contents of any food that is prepared or packaged. The front of the label and the contents may not indicate hidden dangers that can only be found in the ingredient list or nutritional content labeling.

Counting Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates convert to sugar in the bloodstream. The pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin in response to the rise in blood sugar, helping convert the sugar to energy to fuel the body’s cells. Diabetics either do not produce enough insulin or their bodies are unable to use it efficiently, allowing blood glucose levels to rise to abnormal levels.

Some diabetics use carbohydrate counting to stabilize their carbohydrate intake and help manage their blood glucose levels. Food labels contain this information on them in the nutritional content section. The number of carbohydrates allowed per day will vary from patient to patient and depend upon several factors. These factors include how active the patient is and what medications he takes.

The American Diabetes Association recommends a starting range of 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal for those who do not already have a set level from their physician or dietitian.

Foods that have carbohydrates include milk, fruit, vegetables, sweets, and starchy foods (breads, pastas, rice). It is important to note serving sizes when counting carbohydrates. Roughly 4 ounces, or 1/4 cup, of most fruits contain 15 grams of carbohydrates or less. A food that is sugar-free can still have carbohydrates, as can foods labeled as “no sugar added”.


Watching the calorie count in foods consumed can be especially helpful to those diabetics who are also watching their weight or trying to lose weight. Calories are also listed in the nutritional information on food labels by serving. Pay close attention to the serving sizes indicated on the package as they may not reflect what a portion is assumed to be.


Diabetics are at risk for heart disease, making it critical that they try to stick to foods that contain healthier fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, that can help reduce cholesterol levels. Foods labeled as fat-free can still contain carbohydrates, so it is important that diabetics read all parts of the food label.


Diabetics with high blood pressure have to be especially careful when it comes to sodium. Read labels and try to choose products with low or no sodium. Be aware that when sodium (or fat or sugar) is taken out, something else (salt, sugar, fat) is often increased.

Free Foods

Diabetics are allowed some free foods that require little or no forethought. Foods with less than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrates in a serving, including 1/4 cup of salsa and 1 tablespoon of fat-free cream cheese, can be eaten up to three times per day without adding into your daily carbohydrate count. Other free foods, including sugar-free gelatin, coffee and tea, can be consumed without restriction.


In the context of a diabetic diet and food labels, when looking at the ingredients, it is wise to choose foods with beneficial ingredients such as soy, oats and olive oil. Some ingredients to avoid would be unhealthy fats such as partially hydrogenated oil.


Food & Fitness: Carbohydrate Counting. American Diabetes Association.

Reading Food Labels if You Have Diabetes. Mayo Clinic Staff. October 11, 2008.

Food & Fitness: Taking a Closer Look at Labels.