Healthy Eating

Understanding nutrition labels on food

The nutrition label on a soda can is examined under a magnifying glass

Eating well can play a large role in helping you manage arthritis symptoms, so understanding nutrition labels is important.

Certain ingredients can make arthritis symptoms worse, such as added sugar that can contribute to fatigue, or unhealthy fats and refined carbohydrates that can contribute to inflammation. Carrying excess weight can also put additional stress on joints. Learn how to understand nutrition labels to help you make healthy food choices and minimize your symptoms.

Nutrition information on food packages and restaurant menus can help you make informed choices about what you eat.  However, making sense of all the information can sometimes be confusing. This article will help you understand the different parts of a food label, what they mean, and what you should be looking for when aiming to eat healthy for arthritis.

In Canada, food labels are required on all packaged foods. They include a Nutrition Facts table and a list of ingredients. The Nutrition Facts are intended to help you understand the amount of calories and nutrients a food contains, compare similar foods, and look for or avoid foods that have a lot of a certain nutrient, such as fibr or saturated fat.

If you’re living with arthritis, look for foods that are low in sugar and saturated and trans fats, unless advised otherwise by your healthcare team. Healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can be good for you in moderation and come from sources like oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and canola oil. Foods that are high in fibre and vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D are good options as well. 

Nutrition Facts Table Example

Image of a nutrition facts table example, showing the serving siize, calories, nutrients, percent daily value

1. Serving size vs. portion size

Serving size screenshot: Per 1 cup (250mL) / par 1 tasse 9250mL)
Nutrition Facts tables are based on a serving size, which can be different from portion size. A serving size is a specific measured amount of food, such as five crackers or one cup of milk. A portion size is how much you choose to eat, which could be more or less than a serving, such as ten crackers or half a cup of milk.

Serving size
5 square crackers

Portion size
Two sets of five square crackers


A helpful way to control portion size is to use smaller serving dishes. Your plate or bowl will look fuller with the same amount of food, which can prevent us from thinking we need more or adding more to fill up the plate. 

2. Calories

Individual calorie needs vary depending on a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, whether they are pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as other factors. Calories come from carbohydrates, fats and proteins and provide the energy we need to perform our daily activities. However, eating more calories than we need on a regular basis can lead to weight gain, while eating less can lead to weight loss. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you understand your daily calorie needs.

3. % Daily Value

The percent daily value (% DV) tells you how much of each nutrient a particular food has, based on maximum recommended daily amounts. A little is 5% or less, while 15% or more is a lot. This percentage is helpful to compare the nutrient value of different packaged foods.

Nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals like calcium and iron are important, so try to eat foods that are high in these areas.

Try to reduce your intake of foods that are high in sugar, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol. If you were trying to choose between a loaf of white and a loaf of whole wheat bread, the whole wheat bread would generally be the better option because it would have a higher % DV of fibre.

Certain healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, and avocados can be good for you in limited quantities, though it is important to minimize your consumption of saturated fats such as butter, cheese, coconut oil, and red meat, as well as trans fats such as fried foods, shortening or margarine.

4. Comparing products

When comparing food products, it’s important to look at each serving size. What may seem like a healthier option might not be if the % DV is based on a much smaller serving size. For example, at a quick glance, a can of soup that has 10% DV saturated fat and 12% DV sodium with a serving size of 1 cup may seem like a better choice than another soup that has 15% DV saturated fat and 15% DV sodium with a serving size of 2 cups.

However, if the serving size of the first is half that of the second, it would actually have 20% fat and 24% sodium if comparing the same amounts.

Soup A
Serving size: 1 cup
Saturated Fat 10%
Sodium 12%
1 bowl of soup

Soup B
Serving size: 2 cups
Saturated Fat 15%
Sodium 15%
two bowls of soups

It may not always be clear which of two products is healthier, because one might be higher in fibre but also higher in sugar. Choosing the right product for you will depend on your dietary needs. A registered dietitian can help you understand your own health needs.

5. Reading the ingredients

In Canada, ingredients on packaged foods are listed in order of weight, so the ingredient that weighs the most will be listed first. This generally means that a food has more of the first ingredient than the second, and so on.

Beware of ingredient lists that start with sugar or a sugar-based product such as corn syrup. Look for foods that list natural, healthier ingredients at the beginning, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, or lean meats such as fish or poultry. Try to avoid or limit foods with added artificial ingredients or preservatives.

The Canada Food Guide recommends that half your meal consist of vegetables or fruits, one quarter whole grain foods, and one quarter lean protein foods.

For more information, visit:, Understanding Food Labels in Canada
Health Canada, Understanding Food Labels