The Importance of Counting Carbs If You Have Diabetes
Life with diabetes can seem complicated with glucose levels to monitor, medications to remember, and meals to plan. It can feel like your condition consumes your whole life. Complicated meal planning strategies only add to the confusion. But a simpler meal planning solution may work for you. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) considers counting carbohydrates (carbs) to be a key strategy for meeting glucose level goals.
The Basics of Counting Carbs ^
When you eat foods that contain carbs your blood glucose levels increase. By eating the right amount of the right kind of carbs, you can keep your glucose levels in your desired range. Carbs come in 3 varieties: starches, sugars, and fiber.
- Starches (complex carbohydrates) are foods like grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes or corn.
- Sugars can be natural (like those in fruit and milk) or added (like the sugary syrup in canned fruit).
- Fiber can be found in foods like fruit (especially fruits with edible skin, like apples), vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
Knowing the number of carbs you need to eat each day is important to make carb-counting work for you. It will be based on several factors, including your activity level and any medications you take to control your glucose levels. Work with your doctor or dietitian to learn how many carbs you need to eat at each meal and snack. For example, you may have a goal of eating about 45-60 grams of carbs at each meal.
Planning a Meal by Counting Carbs ^
Where can you find the number of carbs in your food? Start with the nutrition facts label. Look for “total carbohydrate” on the label. This number accounts for carbs from starches, sugars, and fiber.
It is easy enough to count carbs if you have access to the nutrition facts labels of all your foods, but what about if you are eating at a restaurant? And what about foods that do not have a label, like fruits and vegetables? By knowing the number of carbs you need at each meal and the average number of carbs in a serving from each food group, you can plan a healthy meal that meets your dietary requirements. You can use these averages to count the carbs in your meal:
By following this table, you know that one serving of oatmeal with milk has 27 grams of carbs:
15 (starch) + 12 (milk) = 27 grams of carbs
Knowing your serving sizes is also important. Measuring equipment, like a food scale, measuring cups, and measuring spoons, can help you keep your portions on track. You can also keep general serving sizes in mind to help you estimate when you cannot measure exactly. For example, there is about 15 grams of carbs in:
- 1 small piece of fruit (4 ounces)
- ½ cup canned or frozen fruit
- 1 slice of bread (1 ounce)
- ½ cup cooked cereal
- ¼ of a large baked potato
- ½ cup ice cream
- 2/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt
- 1 cup milk
- 2 small cookies
You may also want to have a carb-counting reference book. You can also download an app on your cell phone or tablet.
Filling Up With Fiber ^
Since fiber is not digested the same way as other carbs, you can subtract half the amount of fiber from the total carbs in any food that has more than 5 grams of fiber in a serving. As an added bonus, fiber-rich foods contribute to digestive health and keep you feeling full longer. A healthy diet should have at least 25-30 grams of fiber each day. Most of us get less than this, so any increase of fiber in your diet is a plus. Choosing whole-grain products will help you meet your fiber goals (and get some of the vitamins and minerals that are lost in refined products).
All Carbs Are Not Created Equal ^
It is possible to eat the right number of carbs but all the wrong foods. For example, a small piece of fresh fruit has the same number of carbs as ½ cup of the same canned fruit. But eating a fresh pear is far more nutritious, not only are you skipping all that refined sugar, you are also getting an extra dose of fiber from the pear’s skin. So count your carbs, but remember to make overall healthy choices and incorporate a variety of healthy foods into your diet.
American Diabetes Association
Joslin Diabetes Center
Canadian Diabetes Association
Public Health Agency of Canada
Carbohydrate counting 101. Joslin Diabetes Center website. Available at: http://www.joslin.org/info/Carbohydrate_Counting_101.html. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Dietary considerations for patients with type 2 diabetes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115449/Dietary-considerations-for-cardiovascular-disease-prevention. Updated February 23, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines. Updated December 2015. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Increasing fiber intake. UCSF Medical Center website. Available at: https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/increasing_fiber_intake. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Understanding carbohydrates. American Diabetes Association website. Available at: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates. Accessed May 5, 2017.
What are net carbs? Diabetes Forecast—American Diabetes Association website. Available at: http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2010/aug/what-are-net-carbs.html. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 5/5/2017