7 Tips and Tricks to Carb Count Like a Pro

My patients with diabetes love the flexibility that comes with carb counting. Plus, carb counting works really well to manage their blood sugar levels. As long as they know the carb count of each food and stick with their meal or snack allowance, they can eat nearly anything.

Blueberry carb count

© Can Stock Photo / swhite Measuring foods rich in carbohydrates makes managing blood sugar levels much easier.

Once you know the basics to carb count, you’ll benefit from these additional strategies. For a basic primer on carb counting, check out How to Count Carbs for Diabetes Management.

Here's how a carb counting cheat sheet helps manage blood sugar levels. #DiabetesClick To Tweet

7 Tips to Tricks to Carb Count Like a Pro

  1. Key in on the Serving Size and the amount of Total Carbohydrates. Check out my earlier post for more discussion of this. The bottom line is that you should NOT count grams of sugar. The total amount of carbohydrate matters so much more than the source of carbohydrate or the type of carbohydrate. Take a look at the following example comparing the carb counts of rice and milk.
    • The carb count of a cup of rice is 45 grams. None of that is sugar. All of it is starch.
    • The carb count of a cup of milk is 12 grams. And all of it is sugar. None is starch.
    • So which will raise your blood sugar more? A cup of rice with 0 grams of sugar (45 grams of carbohydrate) or a cup of milk with 12 grams of sugar (12 grams of carbohydrate)? The answer: the cup of rice raises blood sugar more because it has more carbohydrate than a cup of milk. You can ignore the sugar count. But be very aware of the total carb count.
  2. Skip the math dealing with fiber and sugar alcohols, probably. This part is so confusing and affects just a small percentage of people that I don’t even like to write about it. But here goes: Typically, the only people who need to worry with this extra math step are those who adjust insulin dosages based on the amount of carbohydrate that they eat at each meal and snack. If you do not adjust your dose of insulin or if you have not been taught this extra math step by your diabetes educator, it’s most likely unnecessary. However, it’s always smart to ask your diabetes educator for clarification. To learn more about this technique, which is more appropriate generally for people with type 1 diabetes than it is for type 2 diabetes, see this explanation from Diabetes Forecast magazine.
  3. Create a carb count cheat sheet. It’s likely that you eat the same several dozen foods over and over. Instead of looking up – or struggling to remember – the carb count of each food, develop your personalized carb count cheat sheet. Measure your usual portion of food and use food labels, carb counting books or an online nutrition database to estimate the carb count in your typical portion. Record these foods and their carb counts on a spreadsheet, in your smartphone or in a notebook.
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  1. Measure the dish. A cup of milk provides 12 grams of carbohydrate, but how much did you pour into your glass? Take time to learn how much your glasses, mugs and bowls hold. Fill them with water and pour the water into a measuring cup. Find dishes that hold the amount you want to drink or eat.
  2. Double check portions for accuracy. Most of my patients ditch the measuring cups once they feel comfortable with estimating their portions. And that’s okay most of the time. Just not all of the time. Unfortunately, it’s common for a 1/2-cup serving of quinoa to spread over time to a 2/3-cup serving and then to even a full cup. I encourage my patients to measure their foods at least twice monthly, say on the 1st and 15th of the month or the first Monday and the third Thursday of the month. Any regular schedule will work. Fill your plate as you normally would. Before taking a first bite, scrape the foods into measuring cups to see just how close your estimates are.
  3. Ask for a restaurant’s nutrition facts. Most chain restaurants now have this information available. You still need to pay attention to the portion that you eat, which may be more or less than the serving size listed. Add these carb counts to your cheat sheet.
  4. Guesstimate combination foods. Each carb count is a guesstimation, but the carbs in casseroles, breaded meats, stews and other combination foods are especially difficult to estimate. Use these rules of thumb to get you as close as possible.
    • Submarine rolls: 15 grams carbohydrate per 2 inches or 1 ounce. A 6-inch sub sandwich typically provides 45 grams of carbohydrate from the bread alone.
    • Breaded meats: 15 grams carbohydrate for 6 chicken nuggets or a single chicken or fish patty.
    • Soups and stews: 30 grams carbohydrate for a 1-cup serving full of starchy foods and only 15 grams if it’s mostly broth, non-starchy vegetables and meat.

Once you get the hang of it, carb counting is fairly simple. But it takes tons of practice. Numbers 3 and 4 above will really make it much easier.

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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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4 Comments

  1. Pat Cox on September 4, 2019 at 11:33 am

    Trying to get sugars level

    • Jill Weisenberger on September 6, 2019 at 6:21 pm

      How may I help you? My first bit of advice is to work with a certified diabetes educator. You can ask your doctor for a referral.

      • Jan on June 16, 2020 at 9:59 am

        What is the difference between macro and grams ? very confusing. Or should I just pay attention to the grams?

        • Jill Weisenberger on June 16, 2020 at 10:06 am

          Yes, it sure can be confusing. Macros is shorthand for macronutrients – fats, carbohydrates and protein. If we were counting them, we’d count each one in grams. If you are carb counting for diabetes management, you count carbs based on your personalized goal such as 30 grams carbohydrate or 45 grams carbohydrate (or some other number) per meal.

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

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