Low Carb Guide to Understanding Nutrition Labels
Have you ever looked on the back of a food package, only to find ingredients you can’t pronounce and hidden sugars you didn’t expect? For success on your path to better health through a low carbohydrate, high fat nutrition plan, it’s important that you learn what to look for on packaged food labels.
First and foremost: this is not a low calorie or low fat way of eating. This is a low carbohydrate, high fat nutrition plan, so while there are many things to be aware of when reading labels, total carbohydrate content is the most important.
Let’s walk through reading a Nutrition Facts label, from top to bottom. Here’s a label for some roasted almonds.
1. Serving Size and Servings Per Container
The first thing you’ll see is the serving size. This is the portion of that particular food that all the other numbers—grams of fat, protein, carb, etc.—are based on. The servings per container is the number of servings contained in the entire bag, box, can, bottle, or jar. It’s important to know the serving size and how many servings there are per container so you don’t inadvertently go over your carb limit for the day. For example, for most nuts, a typical serving is one ounce. For sliced deli meats, a serving might be 3–4 slices. Salad dressings are usually 2 Tbsp; other condiments are just 1 Tbsp per serving. Even if the carb count for one serving is low, the carbs can add up quickly if you eat multiple servings.
A ketogenic diet is not a low calorie plan. There’s no calorie-counting. Instead, it’s far more important to keep track of carbohydrates.
3. Total Fat
When you’re in nutritional ketosis, fat is fuel and with this high fat nutrition plan you need not fear fat or worry about counting fat grams—not even saturated fat. The amount of fat varies for individuals, but instead of counting grams of fat, it should be consumed to satiety. Also, the type of fat matters; most should come from monounsaturated and saturated fat sources. Some labels break the fat down into different types of fat. Food sources of fat contain a mix of different fats, but here’s a general overview:
- Saturated: found predominantly in dairy products (butter, cheese, cream) and and other animal sources (beef, pork). Some plant oils, such as coconut and palm, are also rich in saturated fat. Read more on saturated fat here.
- Monounsaturated: found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, and also in animal sources (beef, pork, poultry)
- Polyunsaturated: found in nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and vegetable oils (soybean, corn, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower)
- Trans: found in vegetable shortening (Crisco), margarine, and mass-produced processed foods (cookies, crackers, muffins)
By eating a wide variety of foods, you will naturally consume a blend of all three natural fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. You should aim to get most of your fats as monounsaturated and saturated. Despite consuming a higher percentage of your dietary intake from fat during a well-formulated ketogenic diet, the total amount of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) that your body needs each day does not change. So consuming sources high in omega-6 PUFA like corn and soybean oils can result in an imbalance in the body and cause poor gastrointestinal tolerance. It’s fine to get PUFA from natural sources, such as fish, and nuts, and small amounts of vegetable oils in the form of dressings, mayonnaise, etc., are okay on occasion, like when dining out. It’s rare to find a restaurant that has ranch dressing made with anything other than soybean oil. So that’s okay, but at home be sure to stock up on dressings and mayos made with oils like canola or olive. Artificial trans fats should be limited as much as possible or eliminated altogether. They are not natural fats and are linked to an increase in the risk of heart disease. Since they are mostly found in foods that do not fit into a ketogenic diet (packaged high-carb snack foods) your intake of trans fats will automatically decrease, but be sure to still pay attention to the amount on the label.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found only in animal products. Vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit contain no cholesterol. You do not need to count cholesterol. Research shows that, for most people, the amount of cholesterol in the foods you eat does not affect the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Egg yolks are welcome at the table again!
We get sodium from some of the foods we eat and table salt. Sodium is an essential nutrient, and very low-carb diets change the way the body holds onto sodium, so if anything, it’s important that you eat enough sodium, rather than worrying about too much. (Do not limit sodium unless you’re taking medication for high blood pressure or are told to do so by your doctor.) Aim for 5g per day: 3g from food and salting your food to taste and an additional 2g from boullion.
6. Total Carbohydrate
The carbohydrate count is given as total grams, and then broken down into carbs from fiber and sugar. Focus on total carbohydrate. Sugar should be zero as often as possible (1–2g at most).
Fiber is a carb and should be included in your total for the day (initially 30g or less).
Again, pay attention to the serving size. Something might be low in carbs, but if you eat 3 or 4 servings, you can easily go over your daily limit.
Protein comes from both animal and plant foods and is very important for overall health to preserve critical structures and functions - like muscles, heart, liver, and practically every other part of the body. Additionally, it helps keep you satisfied and is the building block that powers important chemical reactions in the body. Consuming enough protein every day is critical, but eating too much can interfere with nutritional ketosis. Read our guide to how much protein you need in nutritional ketosis for more information.
8. Vitamins and Minerals
Your individual needs are unique; you need not pay attention to the percentages given here. To make sure you consume enough vitamins and minerals, aim for 5 servings of non-starchy vegetables daily.
9. % Daily Value
These are percentages of nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Because this is not a calorie-restricted diet, and you may be eating more or less than 2,000 calories, you need not pay attention to these percentages.
On food labels, ingredients are listed in order by weight—the first few ingredients are the main ones in the product, while the ones toward the end of the list are used in smaller amounts. Here are some key things to look out for:
- Trans fats: These are chemically modified fats that come from vegetable oils and should be avoided as much as possible. According to labeling laws in the U.S., if a food contains less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, the label can say 0g, so be sure to read the list of ingredients. You can spot trans fats by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” with oils.
- Sugar-free or Low-carb: Don’t be fooled by clever packaging and slick marketing. Packages that say “low carb” or “sugar free” may have hidden sugars and many of these that calculate net carbs (the subtraction of fiber and sugar alcohols) are likely high in total carbs. Pay attention to the ingredients and the total carb content, even when the front of the package shows “low carb.”
- Vegetable oils: Try to avoid or limit as much as possible foods that list corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, or safflower oil among the first ingredients. Opt for condiments and marinades made from olive or canola oils.
- Hidden sugars: Sugar goes by many different names, which helps manufacturers disguise the true amount of sugars and sweeteners in their products. The many names of sugar include:
If you see any of these listed in the ingredients on a label, it doesn’t mean the item is automatically off-limits. As long as the total carbohydrate count is suitable, it’s okay to consume it. For example, many brands of bacon and cold cuts are cured with brown sugar or honey, but the amount of sugar remaining in the final product is very low. As long as the total carbs per serving are 1–2g, that’s okay. The same goes for salad dressings—many perfectly good low-carb choices, such as ranch or bleu cheese, may have sugar listed in the ingredients, but the total carbs per serving will be just 1–2g.
Bottom line: Carefully read nutrition labels to limit your total carbohydrates and identify the right ingredients to help you successfully navigate your low carb, high fat lifestyle.
To learn more about how food affects blood sugar, watch Dr. Sarah Hallberg's video here: