How to Read a Nutrition Label on the Keto Diet

You need to understand how to read a nutrition label in order to do the keto diet successfully.  There's no getting past it unless you plan on eating grass-fed butter all day to ensure you're eating plenty of fat (which would get really old and is highly not recommended).

Getting into ketosis is somewhat complex: in order to get into a ketogenic state you should be eating certain percentages of fat, carbohydrates and protein.   You can calculate these percentages through our keto calculator.

To do this correctly, you must understand nutrition labels.

The nutrition labels on food products were not meant for a keto diet.  The percentages of each macro nutrient listed will be flat out wrong for people eating a high fat, low-carb diet.  The nutrition label on purchased food is based on what the US Government Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends, which is NOT a high fat diet.

Do NOT pay attention to these numbers when on the keto diet.  In fact, don't even look at the percentages because you'll be so in awe of how different they are.

Example of reading a complex nutrition label for the ketogenic diet

On the keto diet I don't buy a lot of packaged food because it seems almost impossible to find food without carbohydrate additives or added sugar, or foods that fit the keto diet in general.  However, one item I just cannot help myself from buying is low sugar ice cream.

There is not yet a low sugar ice cream that is made specifically for the keto diet, but if you only have one serving of some of them every now and then, you can make them fit the diet.

There are several examples of these ice creams, but I'm using Halo Top brand as my example to read a nutrition label on the keto diet.



Now for the details...in the following sections, we will break down each part of the nutrition label for the keto diet.

Sections of a Nutritional Label

Total Fat

Total fat calories for the keto diet should make up 65-90% of daily caloric intake.  In terms of a 2000 calorie diet, this equates to 1300-1900 calories from fat.

In terms of grams of fat, which is seen on every nutrition label, you will eat from 145-200 grams of fat per day.  One tablespoon of butter has 11 grams of fat.

Total fat is the sum of saturated fats, trans fats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.

If any of these subcategories of fat are included in food, they will be listed on the label.

Total Fat = Saturated Fats + Trans Fats + Polyunsaturated Fats + Monounsaturated Fats

There are a lot of different types of fats that fall into the category of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.  Sometimes, if they are important like the polyunsaturated fats omega 3 and omega 6, they will be listed under these categories on the label.

Not all fats are good on the keto diet (ie, trans fats = bad!).  Make sure to read up on understanding all types of fat before starting the keto diet.

Cholesterol

Not counted towards your daily fat in-take on the keto diet.

Note:  There is a lot of bad information out there on cholesterol.  Do not be scared off by food like eggs which contain high cholesterol.



Total Carbohydrates

Net Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates that you can consume on the keto diet are calculated on a net carbohydrate basis.  Why?  Because only the net carbohydrates are used as energy.  Normally you will NOT see net carbohydrates listed on a nutrition label - you will have to calculate it, but don't worry it's easy.

On the nutrition label you will see the terms Total Carbohydrates, Fiber, Sugar and sometimes Sugar Alcohols.

Net carbohydrates are the total carbohydrates on the nutrition label minus the fiber minus the sugar alcohols. 

If the amount of sugars is noted, ignore it.  For the sake of ketosis, carbohydrates outside of net carbohydrates and sugars affect your body the same. 

Net carbs = Total Carbohydrates - Dietary Fiber - Sugar Alcohols

For beginners, the recommended amount is 20 grams net carbohydrates per day.  This equates to 80 calories from NET carbohydrates and 4-10% of your daily calorie intake.

Dietary Fiber

Your body cannot digest and use fiber as energy, so it is subtracted from the total carbohydrates.  Remember, your body needs fiber and it is very important on the ketogenic diet, so don't count it out!

This is one area where you can use the nutrition label as a guide on daily fiber in-take percentage.  You should eat more than the recommended 25 grams of fiber when on the keto diet, but it gives you an idea.

A decent amount of the calories from vegetables comes from carbohydrates, but the majority of these in keto-recommended vegetables are from fiber.  You would barely be able to eat any vegetables if it weren't for the fiber.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols do not digest like carbohydrates in your body and therefore do not count toward total carbohydrates either.  Using sugar alcohols is a way to sweeten foods without adding carbohydrates when eating keto.  There can be negative affects to sugar alcohols, so be sure to read our article on Sugar Alcohols on Keto before using them freely in your foods.

If sugar alcohols are added, look in the ingredient section to see the type of sugar alcohol that was added.

Sugar

When sugar is mentioned in the carbohydrate section, that means it does not naturally occur in the food but was added to the food.  You will see it on the ingredients list in the form of either, sugar, organic cane sugar, corn syrup, beet sugar etc.  Be wary of any food with added sugar on the keto diet.  Remember, you only get 20 grams of net carbs starting out.  And let's be clear, organic sugar is still sugar.

Protein

Protein is a very simple line on the nutrition labels.  There is no breakdown here, except that some protein supplements may break down amino acid profiles.  For the sake of simplicity, we will not go into the details of amino acid profiles in this article.

Protein will make up 5-25% of daily calories on a 2000 calorie diet.  This equates to 100-500 calories per day of protein, and 25-125 grams per day.

Ingredients

No matter what a food product says on the front, you need to look at the ingredients section of the nutrition label to know what is really in your food.  Sad to say, the rules on labeling food allows food companies to be very misleading on the front of the label.  But they must be honest on the back of the label.

Don't eat foods with these ingredients

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are NOT ok.  Some of these digest like carbohydrates in your body, elevating your blood glucose levels.  While not all of them do this, the real concern with artificial sweeteners is that over frequent and long-term use, they may change the bodies responses to glucose and insulin.[vii]  They have been linked to increased weight gain and lowering satiety, causing overeating.   Natural sweeteners like sugar alcohols and stevia are a better alternative.

What about all these fibers?

A popular way to sweeten foods without add calories is the addition of chicory root fiber.  If you see this in the ingredients don't worry.  It is actually really beneficial to your body.

Psyllium husk fiber, prebiotic fiber, and inulin all count towards fiber and therefore do not count toward net carbohydrates.



New Nutrition Label vs Old Nutrition Label

In 2018, the FDA will require a new format of nutrition label with a few changes.  Some companies have already begun to change their label to the new format.  There are only a few changes that specifically affect keto dieters:

  • The sugars added in addition to the naturally occuring sugars will be required to be noted.
    • You will still calculate net carbohydrates the same way
  • Minerals like potassium will now be mentioned - which is great because it is a mineral keto dieters frequently fall short of.

Do you still have questions on how to read a nutrition label for the ketogenic diet?  Or what about specific ingredients and how they affect ketosis?  Ask us below!

4 Comments
  1. When reading a food label is “sugar grams” (because this is what is mostly on labels and not “sugar alcohol grams”) considered separate from the carb breakdown, or count inside the Carbohydrate Section?

    Basically, when trying to find the net carb for a certain food, should we ignore the grams of sugar listed and only pay attention to the carbohydrate and fiber grams listed? Because the sugar is included in the carb. grams?

    1. Sugar is included in the total carbohydrates, but so is fiber and sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols will always be listed as sugar alcohols, never as sugar.
      So calculating net carbohydrates…total carbohydrates-fiber-sugar alcohols=NET carbohydrates. Sugar counts towards the net carbohydrates, which is why it is not subtracted.

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