Ideal Daily Carbohydrates for Managing Diabetes

Carbohydrates (any type of sugar, starch, or fiber) are a primary source of energy and are critical to your body's functioning. But if you have diabetes, recommendations for daily carbohydrate intake are different for you than they are for those who don't have the disease—and for very good reason.

Wholegrain and cereal spread out on a table
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During digestion, the body breaks down carbs into glucose (sugar), which then floods the bloodstream. Those who don't have diabetes process this sugar effectively so that it gets to the cells that need it. Those with diabetes don't, meaning it stays in the blood—a situation that can lead to a host of serious health problems if not well-managed.

Carbohydrate counting and choosing your carbs wisely is an essential part of your diabetes treatment plan.

Carb Guidelines

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with diabetes should get approximately 45% of calories from carbohydrates.

On a 1600-calorie diet, for example, that would mean 135 to 180 grams per day. 

Your personal target may vary. Guidelines from the American Diabetes Association suggest that there is not an exact, ideal percentage of calories from carbohydrate, protein, and fat for people with diabetes.

Registered dietitians, nutritionists, and certified diabetes educators (CDEs) can create individualized meal plans based on eating patterns, goals, food preferences, lifestyle, culture, etc.

What Determines Ideal Carb Count

Figuring out the ideal number of carbohydrates you should eat daily needs to be a collaborative effort between you and your healthcare team. Specific factors that influence your carbohydrate intake include:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Weight
  • Activity level
  • Blood sugar numbers

How you divide total carb intake throughout the day also will depend on a variety of factors, including:

Some people benefit from eating a consistent carbohydrate diet. For example, eating the same amount of carbohydrates per meal daily (especially when taking fixed doses of insulin) can help take the guesswork out of managing medication at mealtimes.

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

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

Planning Your Carb Intake

Mapping out your daily meals can provide a helpful framework for making sure you're balancing your carb intake.

Goals to keep in mind:

  • 45 to 60 grams of carb per meal (or less)
  • 15 to 30 grams of carb per snack (or less)

When planning your meals, pair any carbs with a protein and fat to slow the uptake of glucose uptake by your bloodstream.

Choosing What Carbs to Eat

When choosing what carbohydrates to eat when you have diabetes, it's important that you choose those that offer vitamins, minerals, and other elements of nutritional value—not just empty calories.

Skip or limit refined carbohydrates (consisting mostly of processed and packaged foods) in favor of complex carbohydrates, which are slower-burning starches like whole grains such as brown rice or oats, or veggies like squash or potatoes, in portion-controlled amounts.

The carbohydrate count of all packaged foods can be found by reading the Nutrition Facts label. For foods without a label, a food journal app in which you input specific foods and portion size can determine the approximate number of carbs you're consuming.

Other Considerations

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Studies have shown that eating a lower-carbohydrate breakfast may help to improve weight and blood sugars. In addition, other studies suggest that a high-fat, high-protein breakfast can help reduce blood sugars throughout the day.
  • Focusing on a high-fiber lunch with plenty of veggies and whole grains will help sustain you through afternoon slumps.
  • A dinner packed with lean protein, green veggies, and a complex carb side is filling and nutrient-dense, meaning you'll be less likely to reach for a carb-heavy dessert later.
  • Juice, milk, soft drinks, and alcoholic drinks are usually high in carbs. If you're limiting your carb intake, these beverages can count for a lot. Stick to water, sparkling water, coffee, and tea for a healthy, no-carb option.

And remember that you don't have to go it alone when working to plan your meals. A nutritionist, for example, can help you establish a meal plan that works with your budget, preferences, and needs.

Sample Meal Plan

The following sample meal plan provides roughly 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15-30 grams of carbohydrates per snack.

The amount of carbohydrate 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 carbohydrate: 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 carbohydrate: ~50 g

Snack:  

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

Total carbohydrate: 18 g carbohydrate 

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 carbohydrate: 55 g carbohydrate

Snack: 

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

Total carbohydrate: 22 g

Sugars, Fat, and Protein

While sugar can have a place in a lower-carbohydrate diet, it's important to be aware of the fact that sugar has zero nutrient density, meaning no vitamins or minerals are present.

High-quality sources of fat and protein play a big role in diabetes management, as they can slow the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and be used for energy when you're limiting carbs.

When working to monitor your carbs, make sure you are also paying attention to the following.

How Many Added Sugars Are Right for You?

Keep an eye on added sugars in packaged foods, which can be the biggest culprit when it comes to empty carbs.

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, jointly published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that no more than 10% of calories come from added sugar:

Specifically, that looks like:

  • No more than 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of added sugar for adult women without diabetes
  • No more than 9 teaspoons or 37.5 grams of added sugar for adult men without diabetes

Other expert groups, including the American Heart Association (AHA), recommend a lower limit of daily sugar intake. AHA specifically recommends that no more than 6% of daily calories from from added sugars.

There are no current recommendations for added sugars for adults with diabetes. If you have diabetes, work with your care provider and dietitian, nutritionist, or CDE to determine the daily amount of added sugar that's right for you.

Adding Fat and Protein

Making plates that contain carbs, protein, and healthy fats can help you keep your glucose levels in better balance than by eating simple or refined carbs alone.

Proteins to include as part of your healthy diet:

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

Fats to include as part of your healthy diet:

  • 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

A Word From Verywell

Everyone with diabetes, especially those who are recently diagnosed, should receive diabetes self-management education (DSME) on an ongoing basis. DSME has been proven to help diabetes outcomes. If you have not received this type of education, ask your primary doctor about 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 carbohydrates. This means that on an 1,600-calorie diet, you would get 720-1040 calories from carbs. Each gram of carbs is equivalent to 4 calories, so you would eat 180 to 260 grams of carbs per day.

  • What is considered a low-carb diet?

    There is no exact definition of low-carb, but a diet in which you get fewer than the recommended 45% to 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates could be considered low-carb. On some extremely low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, you may consume only 5% to 10% of your daily caloric needs from carbs.

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14 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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