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Carb vs. Sugar: How to understand nutrition labels

Nutritional label

Growing up with type 1 diabetes meant that much of my young life was spent hearing the quote “you can’t eat sugar.”  Typically, it was because it is the first thought people have when it comes to diabetes.  But there is so much more than sugars. Total carbohydrate grams are what help tell the whole story.

Myth: Carbohydrate grams don’t matter. Sugar grams are the only thing that increases blood sugar.

Fact: Both sugar grams and carbohydrate grams have a direct impact on blood sugar.

How your body works


The foods we eat break down when digested and much of what we eat breaks down into glucose. (Exceptions to this rule are proteins like meat, poultry and fish, and non-starchy vegetables). Insulin is needed when we eat anything that breaks down into glucose – the insulin either comes from your pancreas, or you need to take insulin from a pump/shot.

Where this gets tricky is that it’s easy to think that glucose is sugar only, which is not the case.  What makes it even more confusing is that they are both on the nutrition label and we know that is where we are supposed to look for our carbohydrate information.

Understanding nutrition labels


Carbohydrates are actually comprised of three nutrients: carbohydrates, fiber, and sugar. You may, and will see, foods that are very low in “sugar” but high in carbohydrate.

carb vs. sugar nutrition label




Example 1

Let’s look at a popular unflavored old fashioned oats label. Here we see that the total sugar is 1 gram.  Looks great right? This item is practically sugar free!  That’s not entirely true, because sugar grams are not what we would base our insulin/medication needs off of. This requires us to look at the carbohydrate serving and for this type of oatmeal it is 27 grams of carbs.  That is far different than 1 gram!







carb vs. sugar nutrition facts

Example 2

Here is the nutrition label for a standard sugar free cookie.  Many would think since it is sugar free they should be able to eat as many of these as they want.  We can see that just because there are no sugars listed there are still carbs that we would need to treat for.

The next time you are faced with the “you can’t eat sugar” quote, now you are equipped to say having diabetes means I need to take insulin or medication to help my body with the carbohydrates that I eat.   And this may better help you explain that you still need to account for sugar free items when the next person offers it to you!


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