HEALTHY HABITS: Learning to Read a Food Label


Did you know that 80% of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight? Did you also know being overweight leads to worsening diabetes and makes blood pressure and cholesterol harder to control?

Taking better care of your health can come from some simple steps such as knowing what you are eating. A good way to start this is by starting healthy habits like reading food labels. Food labels help you make smart choices about eating foods rich in nutrients while keeping your appetite satisfied. Making better food choices and eating the right amounts of food will help you lose weight. Your health will improve with these changes.

Let’s start with the basic steps of reading food labels. Each section of the food label is underlined below, so look at the food label while reading this article.

Serving size is a very important part of the food label. People don’t realize how much food is in one package. Many food packages contain more than one serving per container. The serving size is shown just below the nutrition facts. All other facts listed (calories, carbohydrates, etc.) are for just one serving. Think about it: If a package of food contains two servings and you eat the entire package, then you will have eaten two servings. Just multiply the number of calories and carbohydrates by two.

Notice the words below the black bar: “amount per serving.” Once again, this refers to the nutritional facts below that are calculated for each food serving you eat.

Calories equal the amount of energy you get from a serving of food. Your caloric need is based on your daily activity, age, height, and weight. If you want to lose weight, you need to decrease your daily intake of calories that maintain your current weight.

% Daily Value (Percent Daily Value), which is based on a 2000-calorie daily diet, shows how much of the recommended amount of a specific nutrient is in one serving of food. Even though you may not know how many calories you need in a day, you can still benefit from Percent Daily Values to choose foods high in needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber. At the same time you can limit foods high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium (salt). Anything listed as lower than 5% is considered “low” in that nutrient and anything listed as greater than 20% is considered “high” in that nutrient. If you need to eat a low-fat, low–cholesterol, or low-sodium diet, then look for foods that list the % Daily Values as less than 5%.

Fat has more calories than carbs or protein. Therefore, it is harder to burn off with exercise. When choosing healthy foods, limit products with saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calories because these nutrients can increase your risk of heart disease. Instead, look for foods that have “no trans fats” on the label. Most people eat too much sodium in their food. Healthy adults should limit their salt intake to 2300 mg—or about 1 teaspoon of sodium daily. People with high blood pressure and kidney disease should eat even smaller amounts of sodium (about 1500 mg daily).

Carbohydrate is a frequently used nutrition fact. Many meal plans for those who have diabetes are now based on the amount of carbs eaten compared to the calories eaten. People that have diabetes count carbs to determine how much insulin to give themselves for meals.

Sugar is only part of the total carb so do not use this number for figuring out an insulin dose. Sugar is often listed as other names so it’s smart to read the ingredient list and look for terms like “high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, invert sugar, and turbinado.” These ingredients contain hidden sugars.

A diet containing a high amount of fiber will help you feel less hungry after your meal. Fiber also helps with healthy bowel function. Recommended intake of daily fiber is 25 grams. For a food to be high in fiber it must contain at least 5 grams per serving.

Protein is important in helping your body grow and repair itself. Remember, protein contains calories so be careful not to eat more than your daily need of this food.

For more information on nutritional facts on food, browse these free internet websites:,,, and For further help in preparing a daily meal plan that is specific to your needs, I recommend you keep a daily written record of foods eaten and consult with a registered dietitian.

Ms. Mary Moyer Janci earned an M.S. nursing at Seattle Pacific University 1999 and B.S. nursing at Washington State University 1979. As a board certified nurse practitioner in advanced diabetes management and certified diabetes educator she sees patients with autoimmune, insulin resistance, chemically induced hyperglycemia, pancreatic and cystic fibrosis related diabetes at an interdisciplinary diabetes care center at the University of Washington. Her teaching emphasizes clinical practice, pathophysiology and complications of diabetes. Professional memberships include American Diabetes Association, American Association of Diabetes Educators, and Washington State Association of Diabetes Educators.