Food Labels and Diabetes: Expert Q&A
You mentioned abnormal cholesterol levels. What information on a food label is relevant?
Labels can help you see what kinds of fat are contained in a food item. For a long time, people worried about total fat. We now know that the amount of fat doesn’t matter as much as the kind of fat. Saturated fat increases LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol. So does trans fat, which comes from partially hydrogenated oils. It’s wise to eliminate trans fat entirely. Saturated fat should be kept to less than 7% of total calories. Cholesterol should be limited to less than 300 milligrams per day. People with high LDL should even aim for lower consumption, typically less than 5% to 6% saturated fat and less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol.
What about healthy fats? What should people look for on the label?
Unsaturated fats are a healthy choice, since they don’t increase bad cholesterol levels. Having some fat in a meal slows digestion, which can blunt the glycemic effect, which is how high and how fast blood sugar levels climb after you eat something. Including protein in a meal also slows digestion and reduces the glycemic effect. Unsaturated fat comes in two types, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, both indicated on food labels. Examples of monounsaturated fat include olive oil, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, avocado, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Eating oily fish at least two times a week is also helpful. Oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help in lowering a type of dangerous fat in the circulation called triglycerides.
Do food labels provide any useful information about glycemic index?
The standard nutrition facts panel helps only indirectly. It shows how many grams of sugar a food contains as well as how many carbohydrates. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. A spoonful of sugar is a carbohydrate. So is an apple. Obviously an apple is a healthier choice than a spoonful of sugar. An apple contains many nutrients. In addition, it has lots of fiber, which helps keep blood sugar levels from spiking too high. For that same reason, brown rice has a lower glycemic index than white rice. Most of us should consume about 25 grams of fiber a day. The current average for most Americans is far below that. So we have a long way to go. Fiber also helps lower bad cholesterol.