Ideal Daily Carbohydrates for Managing Diabetes

Carbohydrates—sugars, starches, and fiber—are a critical nutrient that is converted to sugar and used as fuel for the body. Individuals with diabetes, a group of metabolic conditions characterized by high blood sugars, can be impacted by how many and what type of carbohydrates, or carbs, they consume. This is why properly managing carbs is an important part of a diabetes treatment plan.

Wholegrain bread, pasta, crackers, and various grains on a table.
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This article covers carb guidelines for individuals with diabetes, as well as how to plan out what you eat. It also offers a sample meal plan.

Carb Guidelines for People with Diabetes

Individuals with diabetes should get around 50% of their calories from carbohydrates. This means someone who eats 1,600 calories a day should eat 800 calories from carbs. Since carbs provide 4 calories per gram, this is equivalent to 200 grams of carbs per day.

Your personal target may vary. Guidelines from the American Diabetes Association note there is no exact percentage of calories from carbs, protein, and fat for individuals with diabetes.

A registered dietitian, nutritionist, or certified diabetes educator (CDE) can create personalized meal plans for individuals with diabetes.

These plans are based on things like:

  • Eating patterns
  • Goals
  • Food preferences
  • Lifestyle
  • Culture

During digestion, the body breaks down carbs into glucose, or sugar. The glucose then floods the bloodstream and gets processed so the body can use it for energy. In those with diabetes, the glucose stays in the blood, which can lead to serious health problems.

What Determines Ideal Carb Count?

Work with your healthcare team to decide how many carbs you need every day. Some things that will influence your carb intake include:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Weight
  • Activity level
  • Blood sugar numbers, which describe how much glucose is in your blood

How you spread your carbs out throughout the day will depend on things like:

A good way to figure out your ideal carb intake is to test your blood sugar before and after you eat. If your blood sugar is within target range two hours after a meal, your meal plan is working. If it's higher, you may need to adjust your meal plan.

Target Blood Glucose Levels 2 Hours After Eating
Group Goal
Adults who are not pregnant 180 mg/dL or less
Pregnant individuals with gestational diabetes 120 mg/dL or less
Pregnant individuals with preexisting type 1 or type 2 diabetes 120 mg/dL or less
Source: The American Diabetes Association

How Do You Plan Your Carb Intake?

Mapping out your daily meals can help you make sure you balance your carb intake appropriately.

Goals to keep in mind:

  • 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal or less
  • 15 to 30 grams of carbs per snack or less

Nutrition labels on packaged foods always list carbs per serving. If a food doesn't have a label, consult a food journal app. These apps let you input foods and portion sizes to find the approximate number of carbs they contain.

It's helpful to pair carbs with a protein and fat. Doing so will slow glucose uptake by your bloodstream.

Some individuals may benefit from eating the same amount of carbs during each meal. This can help take the guesswork out of managing your insulin medication, especially if you take fixed doses.

How Do You Choose What Carbs to Eat?

It's best to choose complex carbs over refined, or simple carbs.

Refined carbs are sources that have been processed and stripped of important nutrients like fiber, folate, and iron.

Most processed and packaged foods fall into this category. Some examples include:

  • White bread
  • Crackers
  • Pasta
  • White rice

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are slower-burning starches like whole grains. These contain more nutrients than simple carbs. They also usually contain more fiber, which can make you feel fuller, longer.

Examples of complex carbs include:

  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Farro
  • Barley
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

It's important to be mindful of portion size when eating complex carbs.

Using the Glycemic Index As a Guide

The glycemic index (GI) is a system that ranks foods based on how quickly they cause your blood sugar to rise.

Foods with a high GI, like refined carbs, make your blood sugar rise faster than foods with a low GI, like complex carbs.

If you do eat something with a higher GI, combine it with a lower GI food. This will help lessen its effect on your blood sugar.

Other Considerations

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Studies have shown that eating a lower-carb breakfast may help improve weight and blood sugar levels. Other studies suggest that a high-fat, high-protein breakfast can help reduce blood sugar throughout the day.
  • Eating a high-fiber lunch with plenty of veggies and whole grains will help sustain you throughout the afternoon.
  • Eat a dinner packed with lean protein, green veggies, and a complex carb side. This kind of meal is filling and nutrient-dense.
  • Juice, milk, soft drinks, and alcohol are usually high in carbs. If you're limiting your carb intake, these drinks can count for a lot. Stick to water, sparkling water, coffee, and tea.

You don't need to plan your meals alone. A nutritionist can help you choose a plan that works with your budget, preferences, and needs.

Sample Meal Plan

This sample meal plan provides roughly 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal and 15 to 30 grams of carbs per snack.

The number of carbs per item is listed in parentheses.

Breakfast

  • 3 eggs with two slices of whole-grain toast, lettuce, tomato (30 g)
  • 1 small piece of fruit (15 g)

Total carbohydrates: 45 g

Lunch

  • Salad with lettuce, cucumber, carrot, 1/4 avocado (5 g) 
  • 1 cup low-sodium lentil soup (30 g)
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn (15 g)

Total carbohydrates: 50 g

Snack 

  • 1 small apple (15 g)
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter (3 g)

Total carbohydrates: 18 g

Dinner

  • 4 oz grilled salmon (0 g)
  • 1 cup roasted asparagus with 1/2 cup cannellini beans (20 g)
  • 1 large sweet potato (35 g)

Total carbohydrates: 55 g

Snack

  • 1 nonfat plain Greek yogurt (7 g)
  • 3/4 cup blueberries (15 g)

Total carbohydrates: 22 g

Including Sugars, Fat, and Protein

When monitoring your carbs, it's important to also pay attention to sugars, fats, and proteins.

Sugar can have a place in a lower-carb diet. Be aware, though, that it has zero nutrient density. This means it has no vitamins or minerals.

High-quality fats and proteins play a big role in diabetes management. They provide energy and can slow the entry of glucose into the bloodstream.

How Much Added Sugar Is Right for You?

There is no current guidance for added sugars for adults with diabetes.

As a point of reference, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults without diabetes get no more than 10% of their calories from added sugar. The American Heart Association recommend an even lower limit of no more than 6% of daily calories from added sugar.

Specifically, that looks like:

  • No more than 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of added sugar for adult assigned females without diabetes
  • No more than 9 teaspoons or 37.5 grams of added sugar for adult assigned males without diabetes

If you have diabetes, you will need to work with your healthcare provider to find the right daily amount of added sugar. A nutritionist or CDE can also help with this decision.

Adding Fat and Protein

Protein and healthy fats keep you feeling fuller longer. Adding these foods to your diet can help your body manage your glucose levels.

Proteins to include:

  • Meat, such as poultry, fish, and lean red meats
  • Eggs
  • Beans and legumes
  • Soybeans, tempeh, and tofu
  • Nuts and seeds

Fats to include:

  • Avocado and avocado oil
  • Olive oil and olives
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds, such as sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
  • High-quality, full-fat, grass-fed dairy products

Summary

A dietitian or other professional can help you find your ideal carb intake to manage your blood sugar. Referencing the glycemic index for the foods you're considering eating can help you make informed choices.

If possible, try to avoid eating refined carbs like white bread and white rice because they lack important nutrients. Instead, choose complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables, which contain more nutrients and help you feel full.

Finally, limit your intake of added sugars and be sure to eat protein and healthy fats.

A Word From Verywell

Diabetes self-management education (DSME) is an effective tool that provides resources and support to individuals with diabetes. This can be especially helpful if you were recently diagnosed.

DSME has been proven to help diabetes outcomes. If you have not received this type of education, ask your healthcare provider where you can find a certified diabetes educator.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many carbs should someone eat per day if they do not have diabetes?

    Most people should aim to get 45% to 65% of their daily calories from carbs.

  • What is considered a low-carb diet?

    There is no exact definition of low-carb. A diet in which you get fewer than the recommended 45% to 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates could be considered low-carb.

  • Is 100 carbs a day considered low carb?

    Yes. This could be considered low carb.

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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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