A Guide to Carb Counting With Diabetes

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Diabetes is a chronic health condition that occurs when too much sugar, or glucose, is in the blood. 

An estimated 34.2 million people in the United States have diabetes.

Over time, high blood glucose levels can lead to nerve damage, kidney disease, vision loss, and heart disease.

Fortunately, with proper treatment and dietary changes, adverse health outcomes can be prevented. One diabetes meal planning technique that is used to manage blood glucose is carb counting, which is slightly different from calorie counting. 

This article will discuss how to count carbs for diabetes and why it's beneficial for keeping your blood sugar levels in check.

Carb Counting and Diabetes

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The Benefits of Carb Counting

The carbohydrates in foods we eat break down into glucose, which causes your blood sugar to rise. Normally, when blood glucose goes up, the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that enables blood glucose in the body’s cells to be used for energy. 

For people with diabetes, the body is unable to use insulin properly or produce enough insulin. This leads to high glucose levels circulating in the blood.

Why Should I Count Carbs?

Carb counting is a flexible way to eat the foods you enjoy while maintaining a low-carb diet. It also helps you learn how certain foods affect your blood sugar so you can match the foods you eat to your insulin dose.

Types of Carbohydrates

The three types of carbohydrates found in food are:

  • Sugars
  • Starches
  • Fiber

Sugar is a type of simple carbohydrate, meaning the body breaks it down quickly. This can cause blood glucose levels to rise and fall at very fast rates. Sugar is naturally found in fruits and milk. It's also frequently added to packaged foods like candy and sodas.

Starches are found naturally in many foods that we eat. This includes bread, pasta, rice, and certain vegetables, like potatoes and corn.

Aim for consuming whole, minimally processed starches. Whole grains provide fiber and other vitamins and minerals essential for good health. Try to get at least half of your daily starch intake from whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa.

Fiber is a plant-based nutrient that the body can't digest. It helps you feel full and slows digestion. Foods high in fiber can reduce your risk of heart disease and help to manage blood sugar. Good sources of fiber include whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans.

Recommended Carbohydrate Intake

Current guidelines from the American Diabetes Association suggest that there isn't an exact percentage of calories from protein, carbs, or fat a person with diabetes should include in their diet.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults with diabetes should aim to get half of their daily calories from carbs.

This means that if you take in 1,800 calories daily, 800–900 calories should come from carbohydrates. Each gram of carbohydrate is four calories, so you would need around 200–225 grams of carbs each day.

The main goal of carb counting is to keep blood glucose levels stable by dividing up your total daily carbohydrate allowance evenly among meals.

What's the Right Amount of Carbs to Eat?

Most adults with diabetes should aim to get 45–60 grams of carbs per meal and 15–30 grams of carbs per snack.

Carbohydrate Content in Foods

For diabetes meal planning, one carb serving is equal to 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Here are some foods that have around 15 grams of carbohydrates:

  • 1 slice bread
  • ⅓ cup of pasta or rice
  • 2 rice cakes
  • ½ cup of oatmeal
  • 1 cup of low-fat milk
  • ⅔ cup of light yogurt
  • ½ cup of fruit juice
  • ½ cup of beans
  • 3 cups of raw vegetables
  • half of a potato or a similar portion of other starchy vegetables

Non-starchy vegetables, including carrots, asparagus, and leafy greens like broccoli and spinach, are much lower in carbohydrates than starchy vegetables. For instance, one-half cup of cooked broccoli contains just 5 grams of carbohydrates.

Protein and fat sources do not contain enough carbohydrates to count toward your daily allowance. However, they are important to include in each meal to slow the uptake of glucose in your bloodstream and provide you with energy.

Sample Day of Eating

The following sample meal plan provides roughly 1,800 calories. It is divided into 40–60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15–30 grams of carbohydrates per snack.  The amount of carbohydrates per food is listed in parentheses.

Meal Planning Suggestions

Breakfast:

  • 2 slices of whole-grain toast (30 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (3 grams)
  • 1 medium banana (30 grams)

Total carbohydrates: 63 grams

Snack:

  • ½ cup low fat cottage cheese (4 grams)
  • 1 small orange (15 grams)
  • 20 almonds (6 grams)

Total carbohydrates: 25 grams

Lunch:

  • 4 ounces baked fish (0 grams)
  • 1 cup brown rice (45 grams)
  • ¼ cup shredded cheese (0 grams)
  • 1 cup steamed broccoli (6 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon margarine (0 grams)

Total carbohydrates: 51 grams

Snack:

  • 2 rice cakes (15 grams)
  • 1 cup of low-fat milk (15 grams)

Total carbohydrates: 30 grams

Dinner:

  • 1 cup of baby spinach (1 gram)
  • 1 boiled egg (0 grams)
  • 3 ounces cooked chicken breast (0 grams)
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese (1 gram)
  • 2 tablespoons of ranch dressing (2 grams)
  • 3 tablespoons of croutons (15 grams)
  • ¾ cup of potato soup (15 grams)
  • 2-inch brownie square (15 grams)

Total carbohydrates: 49 grams

How to Get Started Carb Counting

Here are a few tips to help you get started counting carbs.

Learn How to Read Food Labels

Nutrition Facts labels located on most food items tell you how many carbohydrates are in one serving. This means that if you consume more than the serving size, you'll need to account for the additional carbohydrates. 

For example, if a bag of chips contains two servings per bag, one serving equals 15 grams of carbohydrates. If you eat the entire bag of chips, you'll have consumed two of those servings, or 30 grams of carbohydrates. 

You don't have to worry about adding the fiber and sugar content because they're already included in the total carbohydrate content listed on food label.

Measure Serving Sizes

When you first start carb counting, it's important to accurately account for carbs in all food sources. 

Measuring out serving sizes greatly improves accuracy and helps you to become familiar with portion sizes. For some foods, you may find it helpful to use a food scale for an accurate measurement.

Keep a Food Diary

To limit fixating on carbohydrate counting all day, try keeping a food diary. This is a great tool to help you keep track of your carb intake. It can also help you learn more about your eating patterns and help you identify foods that negatively impact your blood glucose levels.

Some people choose a pen and paper food diary, while others find using an app or making notes on their phone easier.

Talk With a Dietitian

If you want to start counting carbs but aren't sure if it's right for you, consider meeting with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can answer any questions you may have and work with you to develop a meal plan based on your food preferences, budget, and individual carbohydrate needs.

Summary

Counting carbs is a proven method to promote glycemic control (managing your blood sugar levels). It involves setting a daily carbohydrate target in grams and dividing the number throughout the day,

For best results when carb counting, choose high-quality carbs and avoid processed foods. The goal is to choose more nutrient-dense carbohydrates that include vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Pair these with lean proteins, non-starchy vegetables, and healthy fats for a balanced diet.

A Word From Verywell

If you have diabetes, it's important to consistently keep your blood sugar levels within your target range to prevent or delay negative health effects. Carbohydrate counting is a great tool to learn portion control and keep your blood sugar in check.

If you're newly diagnosed and haven't received a personalized diet education, it's best to speak with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator. If you're unsure where to find a registered dietitian, have a conversation with your primary healthcare provider, who can refer you to one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many calories per day should come from carbs?

    According to the CDC, people with diabetes should get about half of their daily calories from carbohydrates. If you eat 1,800 calories per day, around 900 of them should come from carbs.

  • Can your blood sugar go up even when you don't eat any carbs?

    Yes. During times of stress, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels are high, your body doesn't properly respond to insulin. This causes elevated blood sugar levels.

  • What are the best snack foods for people with diabetes?

    Popcorn, Greek yogurt, and boiled eggs are all excellent on-the-go snacks for people with diabetes. Raw vegetables paired with hummus is also a great option.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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