Reading Nutritional Labels for Keto

When you start Keto, a big part is learning what exactly counts as a carb beyond the obvious.  Then there’s the important matter of learning how to read and understand nutritional labels.

While the ideal Keto diet will be one that includes plenty of foods that don’t come with a label, “real” foods such as vegetables, meats and other fresh foods that are naturally low in carbs and sugars, it’s almost impossible to never eat anything out of a package.

Serving Size

Serving size is very important piece of the label. A “serving size” may bear little resemblance to the amount of food which you’re eating at a time. If a package says a serving size is 1/2 cup, it’s a good idea to measure it out to get a better idea of how much that actually is, as it’s very easy to underestimate how much we’re actually eating.  When it comes to snack foods, you might want to separate the package into smaller bags that are the serving size you want to eat.

Sometimes, as in the label shown, serving size is actually done by weight, not volume.  If you don’t have a scale available you want to pay close attention to the number of servings per package, and base your serving size off that.

When you are counting grams of carbs it’s important to look for “hidden carbs” or “rounding errors” when it comes to serving sizes.  For example if a label says 1 tablespoon of food has one gram of carbs, due to labeling laws that could be anything from 0.51g to 1.49g of carbs.  The same goes for anything that is labeled at 0g of carbs, which could be anything from 0g to 0.5g.  A common example of this is heavy cream.  One tablespoon of heavy cream has roughly 0.4g of carbs but it can legally by labeled as 0g.  That’s not such a big deal when you’re eating one serving, but there are 16 tablespoons in a cup, so that 0.4g adds up pretty fast.

Total Calories

Although calories matter, they are not as important on a Keto diet as keeping your carbs low, as part of the idea is that your appetite will “normalize” to reflect your bodies nutritional needs.  However, people still find that it’s helpful to keep an eye on those calories.

 

Fats

The amount on fat on Keto generally isn’t an issue, but the type of fat can be.  Although not always labeled, selecting foods where most of the fat is monounsaturated fat is a good guide.  in the context of Keto, total fat intake has not been a contributing factor to an increased risk of heart disease.  The same is true of cholesterol.

Carbohydrates

There are a number of parts to the carbohydrate section of a nutritional label, and it’s and it’s important to understand each one.  The main thing that people eating a Keto diet should be concerned about is the impact the carbs we eat have on our blood sugar.  You should aim for blood sugar impact that is both low, and slow, and avoid high peaks in blood sugar.

Total Carbohydrates

The grams of total carbs is the first thing to look for.  If it’s high, it’s a good idea to put the food back on the shelf.  Even if the carbs are coming from “good” sources.  Too many carbs at once will spike your blood sugar.

Beneath the Total Carbohydrates line there will be maybe two or three other lines – Fiber, Sugars and sometimes Sugar Alcohols.  These lines may not add up to the total as starch does not have to be listed on nutritional labels, so it can be assumed to be starch.  In processed foods, starch normally raises blood sugar levels as much, or even more than sugars.

Sugars

The amount of sugar in food is not always a reliable indicator of how much the food will affect blood sugar, as starches and sometimes sugar alcohols may have a similar affect, but sugars will in most cases make up a large portion of the total carbohydrates.

Fiber

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that does not raise blood sugar levels.  In fact, fiber can slow down the impact of the other carbohydrates present in a food.  Therefore, when counting carbs on Keto the grams of fiber should be subracted from the grams of total carbohydrates.  This gives a number which is called either “net carbs” or “effective carbs”.  This number is the amount of carbohydrates that will affect blood sugar.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols can be a bit tricky to interpret.  A product can be labeled “sugar free” and contain sugar alcohols to add the sweetness that would normally come from regular sugar.  If that’s the case, there will be a separate line under Carbohydrates on the nutritional label.

Food manufacturers would like to to think that sugar alcohols have very little affect on blood sugar, but it all really depends on which sugar alcohol is used in the product.

The chart here has information about sugar alcohols and their effective carbs and affect on blood sugar.  Many sugar alcohols aren’t as sweet as sugar, so more must be added to get the same sweetness.  Many of them (particularly maltitol) can cause gas and other adverse intestinal reactions.

The only sugar alcohol that has no affect on blood sugar is Erythritol, and any carbs attributed to it can be safely subtracted from the listed total carbohydrates.  Others can be subtracted based on their GI (subtract 3/4 the carbs from maltitol, 1/2 the carbs from sorbitol etc).

Protein

It’s important to eat enough protein to ensure that you are not losing lean muscle mass.  Usually our appetites will regulate getting the right amount of protein, but if you aren’t someone who tends to eat much protein you should keep on eye on this.  You should be getting 30-35% of your daily calories from protein, or 0.6-0.8g of protein per pound of lean body mass.