How to Read a Food Label

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on April 04, 2022
4 min read

You’ve seen nutrition labels on food packages. They can help you manage your weight and conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

You just have to know what to look for and what all those numbers mean. Get started with this quick and easy guide to knowing what’s what.

Serving Size

All the information listed on a nutrition label is based on the listed serving size. Don’t assume one box, carton, or bottle equals one serving, even if it seems small. If you eat or drink more than the serving size, you'll need to recalculate.


Always check the calories to make sure you're keeping to your daily calorie budget. That will depend upon whether you're trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight; how active you are; and other factors. If you're not sure how many calories you should get per day, ask your doctor or a dietitian.


Carbs give your body energy faster than protein or fat does.

If you have type 2 diabetes, you need to know the amount of carbs in a food so you can manage your blood sugar level. Ask your doctor how much you need per meal. The number depends on your age, how active you are, how many calories you get, and any medications you’re taking.


Most people get too much sugar, so just about everyone should cut back. If you're on a special diet because of a health condition, follow the guidelines your doctor gave you.

The "Total Carbohydrate” amount includes sugar, even though sugars are also broken out separately. If you’re counting carbs because you have type 2 diabetes, you don't need to count the grams of sugar separately. You will need to check the ingredients list to see what types of sugars are in the food.

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone limit sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories a day for women, and no more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories per day for men. Those numbers include sugar from all sources, not just what you add to your meal.

Sugar Alcohols

You may see these reduced-calorie sweeteners (which include sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol) in products labeled “no sugar added” or “sugar free.” They have fewer calories than “real” sugars, and they don't contain the kind of alcohol you drink.

Your body doesn't absorb sugar alcohols completely. If you’re sticking to a certain amount of carbs each day, you can estimate that you'll absorb half of the sugar alcohol grams.


You get fiber from whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and other plant foods. It helps you feel full and slows down the rise of blood sugar. If you have diabetes and are counting carbs, you can subtract this number from the “Total Carbohydrate.”

Men should get 38 grams of fiber each day, 30 grams if you are over age 50. Women should get at least 25 grams of fiber per day, or 30 if you are on the DASH diet or have high blood pressure. Women over 50 need about 21 grams a day.Most people get only about half that amount of fiber. When adding more fiber to your diet, it's a good idea to do it gradually so your digestive system has time to adjust.

Fat and Cholesterol

Saturated and trans fats make heart disease more likely.  No more than 5%-6% of your total calories in a day should come from saturated fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthier choices, since they actually lower or don't affect cholesterol levels. Follow the guidelines your doctor gave you about how much and which types of fat are OK for you. A registered dietitian can give you more information and ideas for meals and snacks that fit those guidelines.


Many people get far too much salt, or sodium. Most of it is in packaged foods and restaurant items. Limit salt to 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon) daily. If you have high blood pressure, kidney disease, or diabetes, or are African-American or older than 51, your daily limit is lower: 1,500 milligrams.


Protein should make up about 10% to 35% of your total daily calories. If you have kidney problems, you may need less. Ask your doctor about that and follow their advice. Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, or low-fat dairy products.

Net Carbs

Some food packages list “net carbs,” “impact carbohydrate,” or “digestible carbohydrate,” but the FDA hasn't defined those terms. If you have diabetes, don't rely on them, since you could misjudge how a food affects your blood sugar. Focus instead on a food’s “Total Carbohydrate.” You should have carbs as 45 to 65 percent of your daily diet.