If you live with diabetes, you probably already know a thing or two (or more!) about carbohydrate counting, or “carb counting.” With this meal-planning approach, you set a limit for the amount of carbohydrate you will eat at a meal or snack and keep track of it. This helps keep your blood glucose levels in your target range—combined with physical activity and insulin or other medication, if needed.
Counting carbohydrate can help you reach your blood glucose goals and prevent diabetes complications. You can learn to count carbs to choose what and how much to eat—and it can become second nature over time. If you take insulin, you can also count carbs to decide how much insulin to take.
Whether you’re a veteran carb counter or new to the idea, we hope to explain the basics and demystify it for you!
1) What is carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are one of the three main energy sources in food. It’s the balance between insulin in your body and the carbohydrate you eat that determines how much your blood glucose levels rise after each meal or snack.
The other two macronutrients in food are protein and fat. With carbohydrate counting, it is easy to forget about the protein and fat in your meals. Always include a source of protein (such as meat, chicken and fish) and small amount of healthy fats (such as olive oil and nuts) to balance out your meals.
2) How much carbohydrate do I need?
The answer to this question is very individual. Finding the right amount of carbohydrate depends on many things, including your weight, how active you are and what medicines you take, if any. Some people are active and can eat more carbohydrate. Others may need to have less carbohydrate to keep their blood glucose in control.
Your dietitian or diabetes educator can work with you to make a personalized plan. To start, a general guideline is to have:
- 45-60 grams of carbohydrate at each meal
- 15-20 grams of carbohydrate for a snack
Checking your blood glucose will help you know if you need less or more carbohydrate. It may take some trial and error, but once you know about how much carb to eat at a meal, you can choose your food and the portion size to match.
3) What foods contain carbohydrate?
Okay, so this is probably what you most want to know! 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
High-carb foods are going to affect your blood glucose much more than other foods, such as meat and meat substitutes, fats or nonstarchy vegetables.
Nonstarchy vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower have a little bit of carbohydrate but in general are very low. So feel free to fill up on these!
4) How much carbohydrate is in a food?
The amount of carbohydrate you eat can make a big difference in your blood glucose. If you eat more carbohydrate than you normally do at a meal, your blood glucose level is likely to be higher than usual several hours afterward.
This is why portion size is so important. Without a good understanding of how much carbohydrate is in a portion of food, it is very easy to overeat. This is especially true when you are at a restaurant, where super-sized portions have become the norm.
To get the hang of portion sizes at home, use measuring cups and spoons or a food scale. With enough practice, soon you’ll be able to eyeball it! Rely on food packaging labels whenever possible (more on that next!).
So how much carbohydrate is in a food? Each of these servings has about 15 grams of carbs:
- 1 small piece of fresh fruit (4 oz) or 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 yogurt sweetened with sugar substitutes
- 1/2 cup ice cream or sherbet
- 1 Tbsp syrup, jam, jelly, sugar or honey
Snacks can help curb hunger while adding a nutritious energy boost to your day. See our list of healthy snack ideas organized by how much carbohydrate they contain.
5) How can food labels help?
Reading the Nutrition Facts food label 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.
With carbohydrate counting, the two most important lines on the label are the serving size and the total carbohydrate amount.
i) 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 accordingly.
ii) Look at the grams of total carbohydrate. This number includes sugar, starch and fiber. Knowing this and the amount of carb you can eat for that meal or snack, you can figure out the portion size to match.
iii) Consider other nutrition information that’s relevant to your health and your goals. If you are trying to lose weight, look at the calories. To cut risk of heart disease and stroke, look to limit saturated and trans fats. If you have high blood pressure, choose foods lower in sodium.