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How to Read Food Labels When You Live with Diabetes

Diet and Nutrition

February 21, 2024

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Photography by Jacoblund/Getty Images

Photography by Jacoblund/Getty Images

by Sarah Garone


Medically Reviewed by:

Kim Rose-Francis RDN, CDCES, LD


by Sarah Garone


Medically Reviewed by:

Kim Rose-Francis RDN, CDCES, LD


Food or nutrition labels can be confusing, especially if you’re new to life with type 2 diabetes. Here are tips to help you feel empowered.

Flip over any food package and you’ll find a treasure trove of helpful info: the nutrition facts label. For people with type 2 diabetes, this black-and-white panel, introduced in 1994, is a road map for dietary decisions.

Within its rectangular confines, you’ll find the lowdown on carbs, sugars, protein, fiber, and so much more.

As a nutritionist, I personally enjoy nerding out by sleuthing through nutrition labels — calculating fat percentages, spotting unusual minerals, and adding up macros. But you don’t have to go all in on nutrition science to use labels well.

Simply understanding what nutrition facts are telling you about foods (and what they’re not telling you) is key to success when living with type 2 diabetes. Here’s a quick lesson on becoming a label-reading pro.

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Check ingredient lists

A food’s ingredient list supplies some of the most important information on the entire panel — so when you’re scanning a label, don’t neglect to look there.

For starters, how long is the list? An ingredient list that reads like a novel isn’t a guarantee that a food is highly processed, but generally, it’s a red flag.

Foods that have undergone numerous processing steps (known as ultra-processing) require many ingredients on their journey. These can include artificial flavors and colors, additives, and preservatives.

The authors of a 2022 review of studies noted a positive association between ultra-processed food and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. And if you already have type 2 diabetes, these foods aren’t a recipe for improving your blood sugar management. When an ingredient list contains tons of items you don’t recognize, consider skipping it or making it a rare treat.

Once you’ve taken stock of an ingredient list’s length, consider the individual contents too.

Though no foods are technically off-limits for folks with type 2 diabetes, you might consider keeping certain ingredients to a minimum — especially added sweeteners. These can go by many names, including high fructose corn syrup, sugar, maltose, agave nectar, barley malt, and brown rice syrup.

Remember that food ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If a sweetener is high on the list, it’s one of the most abundant ingredients in the food.

Some helpful ingredients you can look for are:

  • whole grains such as whole wheat, oats, and brown rice
  • added fiber such as chicory root or inulin
  • beans and lentils
  • fruits and vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
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Take note of serving sizes

You can think of serving size as the jumping-off point for all your nutrient calculations. Every piece of information on a nutrition facts label derives from this one amount. If you plan to eat more (or less), you’ll need to calculate the nutritional info by doing a little math.

Let’s say, for example, you’re aiming for 50 grams of carbs per meal, but you’re hankering for a bowl of cereal. A look at nutrition labels reveals that 1 cup of Raisin Bran contains 46.6 grams of carbs, and 1 cup of 2% cow’s milk contains 12 grams of carbs. This puts you 8 grams over your target.

Even if you could get the carbs down to your target, Raisin Bran contains more than 2 teaspoons of added sugar per cup. It might be best to opt for a different type of cereal or find yourself a satisfying substitute that is free of sugar and dried fruit!

Beware of misleading terms

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates nutrition facts labels — but that doesn’t mean some misleading terms don’t sneak in from time to time. Some are particularly tricky for folks living with type 2 diabetes.

‘Low carb’

The FDA doesn’t have guidelines for labeling foods “low carb,” so manufacturers are free to place this moniker on food packaging as they please. But don’t be fooled — the nutrition facts label, not a “low carb” designation, is the place to look for carb count.

‘No added sugar’

“No added sugar” is another term that may trip you up. Though it’s usually a good sign if a food contains no added sugar, that food may still be high in carbs and/or naturally occurring sugars.

For example, dates are a fruit-based sweetener with plenty of health benefits compared with refined sugar — but they’re still quite high in the sweet stuff.

‘Whole grain’

Grain claims can be confusing, too, since the FDA doesn’t define any parameters for the grain content of foods labeled “whole grain.” A more reliable indicator of whole grain goodness is an ingredient label that lists a whole grain (such as whole wheat, brown rice, or oats) as the first ingredient.

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Label lessons

Again, as a nutrition professional, I could wax poetic about the nutrition facts label for days. But I’ll spare you my ode to the panel and simply share some top pointers for label-reading with type 2 diabetes:

  • Look for foods with high levels of fiber: Ideally, look for at least 3–4 grams per serving. Fiber helps with both blood sugar regulation and weight management.
  • Always check for added sugars: These increase your carbohydrate total, potentially disrupting your blood glucose levels.
  • Wise portion decisions are up to you: As of 2020, serving sizes must be based on the amounts of foods that people are actually eating, not what they should be eating. Translation: That unrealistic 1/2-cup ice cream serving is now 2/3 cup. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat an entire 2/3 cup.
  • Measure carefully: I recommend keeping a calculator and measuring cups on hand when cooking at home. Both of these can help you know exactly what you’re getting nutritionally.


Getting familiar with the nutrition facts label is a great way to empower your health with type 2 diabetes. By making a habit of checking nutrition info, you can feel confident about choosing and eating foods that support your needs.

Medically reviewed on February 21, 2024

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About the author

Sarah Garone

Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.

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