Once you understand that, if you are pre-diabetic (or trying to lose weight), overloading your body with glucose by regularly eating large amounts of carbohydrate is to be avoided, learning to read food labels in a purposeful manner becomes second nature.
I created a simple spreadsheet of all the food products I buy regularly so that I can see quite clearly the total amount of carbohydrate in everything I eat. That way, I can make healthier meal choices, compare brands and make simple food swaps such as eating low-carb cauliflower mash instead of high-carb potato mash. It took a little while but it was totally worth it for the insights it gave me to create a much much healthier diet for myself and my family.
The nutritional information for the food you buy has to appear somewhere on the packaging by law. It’s usually in tiny tiny writing so make sure you have your glasses to hand if you need them! The information is usually quoted per 100g or per 100ml. Often, there will be a serving or pack size like this one for cold-pressed rapeseed oil.
You can see the amount of energy in the food i.e. the number of calories, the types of fat (the best kind for managing your cholesterol levels is monounsaturated fat), the amount of protein and carbohydrate with the % of sugar present (the total amount is what counts) and salt levels. This oil label also shows the important vitamins and the level of Omega 3 fatty acids present.
You will also see, prominently featured on the packaging, the so-called traffic light system of nutritional information. Although you can see the % of sugars, it doesn’t quote the total carbohydrate level (the important number) and you’ll have to search for it on the nutritional information panel elsewhere on the pack. It’s very annoying and the packs should really include the total carbs clearly because that’s what really drives type 2 diabetes and also obesity.
If you shop online, you can easily look at the product information panel on each product page to review the nutritional information. That way, you can make brand by brand comparisons (they can vary quite a lot) and save your choices to make your shopping easier.
You can also see the colour coding here used in the traffic light system but just remember the total grammes of carbohydrate is what counts, not simply sugar levels.
In this example, you can see that the sugar content per pack is 9.5g but the total carbohydrate is a whopping 41g. If you are trying to stay under e.g. 40g of carbohydrate/day to lose weight, this equals more than your daily total allowance.
- Anything made with flour i.e. pasta, pizza, crackers, biscuits, bread and pastry will be high in carbohydrates. It means that these food items will raise your blood glucose levels quickly. As dishes made with them are usually combined with lots of fat, it also makes them calorie-dense i.e. not good for weight loss either. Bulghur wheat, rice, quinoa, couscous and pearl barley, often the base for veggie salads, are also high in carbohydrate.
- Loose items such as fruit and vegetables generally don’t carry food labels so you need to be extra careful about making the best choices. For example, although we are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, be aware that exotic fruit like bananas, pineapple and mango are high in sugar/carbs so choose berries, apples and pears instead which are much lower. As a rule of thumb, veg that grows below the ground tends to be more starchy/carby than ones that grow above the ground. So, potatoes are high in carbs, cabbage and broccoli aren’t.
- Fat does not spike your blood glucose and is necessary for good health. Many products marketed as low fat often have sugar added to give them flavour and texture so it’s best to give them a wide berth. When looking at the fat content of food, olive oil and cold-pressed rapeseed are high in monounsaturates which is the best for HDL ‘good’ cholesterol. Oils such as sunflower and palm are very high in polyunsaturates which can raise your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol. Saturated fats such as those found in dairy products, eggs and meat are all OK but can also be high in calories so eat them in moderation.
- If you make your meals from scratch, you know what’s in them. If you eat out a lot, eat ready-meals or so-called junk food such as burgers and pizza then just be aware that you may not know what all the ingredients are. Have an occasional treat, by all means, just keep the junk in check.
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NB: Always consult an appropriately qualified health professional before adopting a dramatic lifestyle change – we’re all different, what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.