How to Count Carbs for Diabetes Management

Most of my clients with diabetes count carbs to help manage their blood sugar levels. It’s one of many tools to help them with meal planning.

How to carb count in a healthy lunch

© Can Stock Photo / Hannamariah

What is carb counting?

With carb counting, you estimate the amount of carbohydrate in your food with the goal of staying within a predetermined range or allowance for each meal and snack.

Carb counting does NOT mean avoiding carbohydrates. It does NOT mean that carbs are bad. Carbohydrates are a nutrient. They are not a type of food. And many, many health-boosting, disease-fighting foods are rich in carbohydrates. Think fruit, quinoa, yogurt, milk, vegetables, black beans, chickpeas, limas, brown rice and a million more!

The beauty of carb counting is that it gives you tons of flexibility. You can choose your carbohydrates from any type of food. This is also the downfall of carb counting. I sure don’t want you to focus on carb counts without paying attention to nutrition. This is just like limiting calories to lose weight, but favoring veggie chips and diet pudding over the foods your body really needs like fruit, nuts and salmon.

Why is it a good idea to count carbs?

Don’t avoid carbs. Count them!

Eating a lot of carbohydrate at one time raises blood sugar a lot, and eating just a little carbohydrate, raises blood sugar less. Many people with diabetes aim for about 45 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal and 15 grams or so per snack, but the amount that’s right for you may be more or less. And that depends on your medications, activity level, blood sugar goals and other things. I like to look at my patients’ food records and blood sugar logs to help each one figure out the right amount for him or her.

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Carb counting is based on each meal and snack, not on a full day or week. Please no saving up from one meal to the next. That’s a diabetes myth that I’d really like to see disappear.

For blood sugar management, count carbs. Don't avoid them.Click To Tweet

How to get starting with carb counting

Counting carbs starts with estimating the amount of carbohydrate in your meal or snack. And that means that you need to measure or estimate your portion sizes. Pull out your measuring cups, and dust off your food scale. Plan to use them a lot over the coming weeks. You’ll also scruntinize food labels, carb-counting apps or websites. Here’s what you need to know about food labels.

count carbs with food labels

Focus on serving size and total carbohydrates. You can ignore the sugar portion because your blood sugar cares little if the carbohydrate is the starch type or the sugar type.

4 Steps to Count Carbs Using a Food Label

  1. Start with the serving size. The serving for the crackers above is 15 crackers.
  2. Take a look at Total Carbohydrates. This line shows that 15 crackers contain 21 grams of carbohydrate. Don’t be confused by the numbers for sugar and dietary fiber. You can ignore them because they’re already counted in the 21 grams of total carbs. You can guess that starch makes up the other 17 grams of carbohydrate. But none of this really matters. When it comes to carb counting, use the number of total carbohydrates.
  3. Compare your portion size to the serving size listed on the label. Certainly you don’t have to eat exactly 15 crackers. By dividing 21 grams of carbohydrate by 15 crackers, you can see that each cracker serves up almost 1.5 grams of carbohydrate. So, for example, if you ate 10 crackers, you consumed about 15 grams of carbohydrate. If you chose to eat only 5 crackers, your portion contains about 7 or 8 grams of carbohydrate.
  4. Total them. Add the amount of carbohydrate from each food to determine the amount in your meal or snack. Adjust your portions as necessary to stick to your carb counting goal.

Not every food has a label. Here’s what you need to know about using carb counts from books, websites and apps.

3 Steps to Count Carbs Using a Nutrient Database

  1. Look up the carb-containing food you want to eat. The USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory is a great site for this.
  2. Determine the amount of food you’re about to eat. To make meaningful estimates in carb counts, you’ll need to know your portion size. Use measuring cups or a food scale as necessary. Don’t guess what a large apple or small apple means. Either weigh it or measure it with a tape measure until this becomes a regular part of your knowledge. A small apple weighing about 5.25 ounces provides 21 grams of carbohydrate. A large apple weighing nearly 8 ounces contains 31 grams of carbohydrate. It’s easy to eat more or less than you think if you don’t know your portion size.
  3. Total the carb counts. Add the carb counts of each food in that meal or snack to stay close to your carb counting goal. Adjust your portions as necessary.

These are beginner guidelines for carb counting. Part 2 is my post on carb counting like a pro.

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Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

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  1. Tommy Rybicki on November 7, 2017 at 10:55 am

    Great information Jill, the more we know about reading labels the better. Counting carbs is especially important for someone with Diabetes, but I think this is relevant to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of their individual diet. Thanks for posting this, I shared it over on twitter.

    • Jill Weisenberger on November 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks for your comments and support Tommy. I’m starting to think that I should write more about label reading.

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Jill Weisenberger

I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

And I believe willpower is way overrated.

Right here is where you can discover the mindset and habits to stick with healthy lifestyle choices most of the time - and drop the guilt when you don't.

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