Carbohydrate Counting

Carbohydrate counting, or "carb counting," is one of many meal planning options for managing blood glucose levels, most often used by people who take insulin twice or more times a day.

Carb counting may give you more choices and flexibility when planning meals. It involves counting the number of carbohydrate grams in a meal and matching that to your dose of insulin. With the right balance of physical activity and insulin, carb counting can help you manage your blood glucose. It sounds complex, but with time you and your diabetes care team can figure out the right balance for you.

How Much Carbohydrate?

A great place to start may be to figure out how much carbohydrate you eat at your meals and snacks now. Tracking your food intake and your blood glucose before and about 2 hours after your meals for a few days can provide useful information for you and your diabetes care team to see how different meals impact your blood glucose. You and your health care team can figure out the right amount for you. 

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 very little carbohydrate and minimal impact on your blood glucose.

How Much Carbohydrate is in These Foods?

Reading food labels will show you how much carbohydrate is in a food. For foods that do not have a label, you can learn to estimate how much carbohydrate is in it. There are many online tools available to help you estimate portions, including the USDA tool, Supertracker: where you can look up the nutrition facts for foods that do not contain a label such as fruits and vegetables.

Protein and Fat

With carbohydrate counting, protein and fat in meals are also a factor but have less impact on your blood glucose than carbohydrates. Protein foods often contain fat, and both protein and fat can affect your blood glucose.  While there is currently no clear method of counting grams with protein and fat to predict impact on your blood glucose, if you suspect that it is affecting your blood glucose management, talk with your diabetes care team.

Using Food Labels

Carbohydrate counting is easier when food labels are available. You can look at how much carbohydrate is in the portion of food you plan to eat. The two items on the label that are most useful 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 2 or 3 servings, 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.
  • Finding the right balance of carbohydrates, calories and portions that will satisfy you can take time and may also change as other factors in your life change.

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The Complete Guide to Carb Counting, 3rd Edition

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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.

  • Last Reviewed: August 24, 2017
  • Last Edited: August 30, 2017

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