Carbohydrate counting, or "carb counting," is a meal planning technique for managing your blood glucose levels.
Carbohydrate counting helps you to keep track of how much carbohydrate you are eating. You set a limit for your maximum amount of carbohydrate to eat for a meal, and with the right balance of physical activity and medicine, if you need it, can help to keep your blood glucose levels in your target range.
How Much Carbohydrate?
How much carbohydrate you eat is very individual. Finding the right amount of carbohydrate depends on many things including how active you are and what, if any, medicines you take. Some people are active and can eat more carbohydrate. Others have trouble eating much carbohydrate.
Finding the balance for yourself is important so you can feel your best, do the things you enjoy, and lower your risk of diabetes complications.
A place to start is at about 45-60 grams of carbohydrate at a meal. You may need more or less carbohydrate at meals depending on how you manage your diabetes.
You and your health care team can figure out the right amount for you. Once you know how much carb to eat at a meal, choose your food and the portion size to match.
What Foods Have Carbohydrate?
Foods that contain carbohydrate or “carbs” are:
- grains like rice, oatmeal, and barley
- grain-based foods like bread, cereal, pasta, and crackers
- starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas and corn
- fruit and juice
- milk and yogurt
- dried beans like pinto beans and soy products like veggie burgers
- sweets and snack foods like sodas, juice drinks, cake, cookies, candy, and chips
Non-starchy vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, broccoli, and cauliflower have a little bit of carbohydrate but in general are very low.
How Much Carbohydrate is in These Foods?
Reading food labels is a great way to know how much carbohydrate is in a food. For foods that do not have a label, you have to estimate how much carbohydrate is in it. Keeping general serving sizes in mind will help you estimate how much carbohydrate you are eating.
For example there is about 15 grams of carbohydrate in:
- 1 small piece of fresh fruit (4 oz)
- 1/2 cup of canned or frozen fruit
- 1 slice of bread (1 oz) or 1 (6 inch) tortilla
- 1/2 cup of oatmeal
- 1/3 cup of pasta or rice
- 4-6 crackers
- 1/2 English muffin or hamburger bun
- 1/2 cup of black beans or starchy vegetable
- 1/4 of a large baked potato (3 oz)
- 2/3 cup of plain fat-free yogurt or sweetened with sugar substitutes
- 2 small cookies
- 2 inch square brownie or cake without frosting
- 1/2 cup ice cream or sherbet
- 1 Tbsp syrup, jam, jelly, sugar or honey
- 2 Tbsp light syrup
- 6 chicken nuggets
- 1/2 cup of casserole
- 1 cup of soup
- 1/4 serving of a medium french fry
Protein and Fat
With carbohydrate counting, it is easy to forget about the protein and fat in meals. Always include a source of protein and healthy fat to balance out your meal.
Using Food Labels
Carbohydrate counting is easier when food labels are available. You can look at how much carbohydrate is in the foods you want to eat and decide how much of the food you can eat. The two most important lines with carbohydrate counting are the serving size and the total carbohydrate amount.
- Look at the serving size. All the information on the label is about this serving of food. If you will be eating a larger serving, then you will need to double or triple the information on the label.
- Look at the grams of total carbohydrate.
- Total carbohydrate on the label includes sugar, starch, and fiber.
- Know the amount of carb you can eat, figure out the portion size to match.
- If you are trying to lose weight, look at the calories. Comparing products can be helpful to find those lower in calories per serving.
- To cut risk of heart disease and stroke, look at saturated and trans fats. Look for products with the lowest amount of saturated and trans fats per serving.
- For people with high blood pressure, look at the sodium. Look for foods with less sodium.
Patient Education Materials — All About Carbohydrate Counting
This two-page introduction to carbohydrate counting is in PDF format so you can download it, print it, and hand it out to patients.
You can also download the Spanish version.
“How do I manage my blood glucose levels?” “What do carbohydrates have to do with diabetes?” “What are carbohydrates and why are they important?” If any of these questions sound familiar, then it’s time to pick up this book.
Carb counting doesn’t have to be confusing, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you learn how to count carbs, it can become second nature. The Complete Guide to Carb Counting has the latest information on carb counting and a list of the carb counts for hundreds of foods you likely eat every day.