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A simple guide to reading food labels with type 2 diabetes

Consult a qualified nutritionist

Of course, a great way to minimise the guesswork in your shopping basket is to have a clear plan of what meals are more effective when managing your diabetes and which ingredients are best to choose.

A nutritionist with experience in type 2 diabetes can help you co-create a balanced diet and meal plan that also factors in your personal tastes.

You can also check out the Novo Nordisk cookbook, packed with wholesome, delicious, and easy-to-make recipes suitable for people with type 2 diabetes.

With so many facts and figures on food packaging, it can be hard to understand which products are actually good for us. Food manufacturers are competing for our attention in the supermarket aisles, so they bombard us with claims designed to catch our eye.

‘Sugar-free’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘organic’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘new improved recipe’ – it’s often just noise designed to distract you from the real nutritional information on the back of the label. According to a 2021 survey by the International Food Information Council, two-thirds of respondents say they pay more attention to ingredients on food and beverages than they did five years ago. But who has the time to study every individual food product they buy?1

This simple guide aims to help you understand what the numbers mean, which ones you should focus on, and some tips on how you might manage your diet with type 2 diabetes.

At a glance...

When buying packaged foods, as a general rule, choose products with:
  • low total fat (especially saturated fat)
  • low sugar
  • low sodium
  • high fibre
  • lower kilojoules (especially when trying to lose weight)

‘Fat-free’ and ‘sugar-free’ DOESN’T mean carb-free

Some diabetic diets are based on balancing blood glucose by limiting carbohydrates. Therefore, it may be important to focus on ‘total carbohydrates’, which includes added sugars and fibre, not just sugar content.

Some foods, such as milk and fruit, are nutritious despite being naturally high in sugar, and can be included as part of a balanced diet. 

Look for healthy fats

Not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats can raise your cholesterol and may increase your cardiovascular risk. In contrast, good fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help to protect your heart despite being calorie dense, when eaten in moderation.

‘Reduced salt’ isn’t the same as low salt

For a food to earn a ‘reduced salt’ label, that means it has 25% less salt than the original version of that product. But that reduced level may still be relatively high. The same logic applies to items boasting ‘reduced fat’.

Be wary of serving sizes

Serving sizes on food labels are notoriously misleading and could make sugar, fat, and salt content look lower than it actually is. If you have a meal plan that specifies serving sizes, see how they compare to the servings listed on the food label so you can stay within your daily calorie and carbohydrate goals.

This is general disease awareness and should not be understood as medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, you should contact your healthcare professional.

  1. International Food Information Council (IFIC). Food & Health Survey 2021, May 2021. Available from: https://foodinsight.org/2021-food-health-survey/ Last accessed: January 2024.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carb Counting [online] August 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/diabetes-and-carbohydrates.html Last accessed: January 2024.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Labels [online] April 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/food-labels.html Last accessed: January 2024.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Nutrition and healthy eating [online] April 2021. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550 Last accessed: January 2024.
  5. World Health Organisation. Salt Reduction [online] April 2020. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/salt-reduction Last accessed: January 2024.

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