It can be slightly more complicated to choose the right foods when you live with a chronic condition. Learning how to use the nutrition facts label optimally for your specific health condition will help you make good food decisions and keep symptoms under control, especially if you have guidance from a registered dietitian-nutritionist who is well versed in managing your specific health issue.
For example, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) will want to pay particular attention to carbohydrates. “As a PCOS dietitian, I tell clients that the most important part of the label is often carbs and sugar,” says Berger. “A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that a traditional slice of bread contains about 15 g of carbs. When you have a snack that is 32 g of carbs, you’re eating about the equivalent of two slices of bread. This might be a lot or it might not. It depends on how you balance your intake.”
Other chronic health conditions have similar considerations. Here are some basic things to know if you want to …
Manage Type 2 Diabetes
There is no official diabetes diet, but the American Diabetes Association did publish a nutrition consensus report in 2019. When you have type 2 diabetes, your carbohydrate intake is extremely important. “Many people think it’s just the sugars they need to watch out for,” says Bremner. “Although it’s certainly important to limit sugary foods, the total number of carbohydrates is critical.” Generally, she says, you can deduct the number of fiber grams from that, because fiber isn’t completely digested by the body, and it slows the release of glucose. When you do that, the result is often referred to as “net carbs.” For more information on net carbs, see this guide from the American Diabetes Association.
Protein and fat also slow the release of glucose, so you have a bit more leeway on carbs when you choose a food that is more balanced by macronutrients, Bremner says. In addition to choosing a food with a moderate amount of carbs, it’s also important to choose one that contains protein, fiber, fat, or some combination of these, or to pair the food with a source of these nutrients, such as whole-grain crackers with peanut butter. Sharon Puello, RD, CDCES, a certified diabetes care and education specialist in Yonkers, New York, recommends choosing foods that contain three or more grams each of protein and fiber per serving.
Control Inflammatory Conditions Such as Eczema, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Multiple Sclerosis
Anti-inflammatory diets have become popular, and sites such as the National Eczema Association, Arthritis Foundation, and National Multiple Sclerosis Society each have dietary information and guidelines for those specific conditions.
“When living with inflammatory conditions, reviewing a food’s added sugar content is key, as sugar can contribute to inflammation,” says Puello. “It would be ideal to take in as little as possible, without switching to nonnutritive sweeteners.” You’ll also want to check the ingredients list for foods that you may be allergic to, which is a concern especially with eczema.
Manage Digestive Conditions Such as Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation has information and dietary recommendations on its website.
“While oftentimes we try to choose foods with high fiber content to help positively affect digestion, in some instances we’re looking for the reverse,” says Puello. “In ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s flares, as well as diverticulitis, low-fiber foods are often the key to relief.”
What exactly does this mean? “In these cases, you would be looking for foods with 1 g or less of fiber per serving,” explains Puello. “When you have ongoing digestive issues, checking the ingredients section of the nutrition label is also very important, as being able to identify what may have triggered a flare in your condition starts with knowing what’s in the foods you’re eating.”
Mitigate Risk Factors for Heart Disease Such as High Cholesterol or High Blood Pressure
The American Heart Association lists dietary guidelines and recommendations for heart health on its website.
When it comes to controlling high cholesterol, pay particular attention to saturated fat, trans fats, and added sugars. “Regarding high cholesterol and risk for heart disease, saturated fat is still the number to watch, although research now shows that sugary foods also contribute to risk,” says Bremner. “On the flip side, look for foods that are high in fiber — the ‘broom’ that helps sweep cholesterol from our system!”
For trans fats, nutrition labels are tricky. “The nutrition facts label can have 0 g listed next to trans fat, as long as the product has less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving,” says Goergen. “That goes for any of the nutrients, including saturated fat and cholesterol. So a simple trick is to look in the ingredients list for ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils to see if any trans fats have been added.” Another ingredient that may be a source of trans fats? Shortening.
For high blood pressure, keep an eye out for sodium content. “It’s unbelievable how many foods contain excessive sodium, as food manufacturers use it as both a preservative and a flavor enhancer — i.e., to get us to eat more!” says Goergen. A low-sodium food contains 140 mg or less per serving, so take note if you are having more than the serving size listed on the label.”
When possible, as with canned beans, look for “no-salt-added” foods. “Beware of products labeled ‘reduced sodium,’ says Bremner. “It’s all relative, and a reduced-sodium soy sauce might still contain over 500 mg of sodium per tablespoon.”
Also helpful: Choosing foods with a higher potassium content. “Traditional wisdom says to limit sodium intake to improve blood pressure, while modern thinking is that a balanced intake of potassium and sodium is what really makes the biggest positive impact on blood pressure,” says Puello. The daily recommendation for potassium is 4,700 mg and for sodium, 2,300 mg, so, when you look at a nutrition facts label, the ideal product would have at least as much potassium as sodium, if not more.
Maintain a Healthy Weight or Lose Weight
“Eating lots of added sugar can increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems,” says Yawitz. Choosing foods with decreased or no added sugars is step one for eating to maintain a healthy weight or to lose weight.
But don’t forget other nutrients. “Obviously calories are important, but they don’t give you the whole picture,” says Bremner. “You want to scan the label for protein, fiber, and fat (in moderation), all of which will help keep you full for longer.”
And don’t necessarily reach for fat-free foods. Some, such as fat-free peanut butter, may contain added sugar to compensate for the alteration. “A lot of times when people are looking to lose weight, they look for fat-free foods,” says Puello. “But fat slows digestion, helping you feel fuller for longer.”
Build Muscle or Fuel Your Cardio Workout
“You need protein to build muscle, and you also need carbohydrates,” says Bremner, “Carbohydrates are our body’s primary fuel, and proteins are the building blocks — so combined they provide energy and essential material.”
That said, what you choose to eat before a workout really depends on what type of workout you are fueling. “If you’re the person going to the gym for a leisurely stroll on the treadmill to get in some movement, then your regular meals throughout the day are likely sufficient,” says Puello. “But if you engage in routine strenuous activity, you want a higher-carb food. Because fiber and fat can slow down digestion, this is one time where your ideal food is lower in fiber and fat. When looking at a nutrition label, your target food is high in carbs, low in fat and fiber, and with some protein included.”