Ideal Daily Carbohydrates for Managing Diabetes

While it's true that carbohydrates—sugars, starches, and fiber—are critical to every body's functioning, people with diabetes can be at particular risk for getting too much of this good thing.

Wholegrain and cereal spread out on a table
 fcafoto digital / Getty Images

During digestion, the body breaks down carbs into glucose, or sugar. The glucose then floods the bloodstream. It normally gets processed so it gets to the cells that need it. But in those with diabetes, this doesn't happen and the glucose stays in the blood.

This can lead to a host of serious health problems if not managed, which is why carb counting and choosing your carbs wisely is an important part of your diabetes treatment plan.

This article covers carb guidelines for people with diabetes and how to plan out what you eat. It also offers a sample meal plan to get you started.

Carb Guidelines for People with Diabetes

People with diabetes should get around 45% of their calories from carbohydrates. This means someone who eats 1,600 calories a day should eat 135 to 180 grams (g) of carbohydrates per day. 

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

A registered dietitian, nutritionist, or certified diabetes educator (CDE) can create personalized meal plans for people with diabetes. These plans are based on things like:

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

Recap

As a rough estimate, aim to get 45% of your calories from carbs. A dietitian or other professional can help you refine this goal to fit your personal needs.

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

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

  • Diabetes medication, which may need to be taken with food
  • Insulin use
  • Eating patterns
  • How your blood sugar changes after eating (blood glucose response)
  • Exercise

A good way to figure out your ideal carb intake is to test your blood sugar. Test 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 by reducing your carb intake.

Target Blood Glucose Levels 2 Hours After Eating
Group Goal
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 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 Facts 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, so keep this in mind as you plan out what you're going to eat.

Some people benefit from eating the same number of carbs each day. This can be especially helpful if you take fixed doses of insulin.

Eating the same amount of carbs during each meal can help take the guesswork out of managing your medication.

Recap

It can be very helpful to plan your meals in advance. Try to pair carbs with proteins and fat. This will slow your bloodstream's uptake of glucose.

Choosing What Carbs to Eat

Not all carbs are created equal. You'll want to favor complex carbs over refined, or simple carbs.

Refined carbs are sources that have been processed and, therefore, stripped of important nutrients like fiber, folate, and iron (why they are sometimes called "empty calories").

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

While better for you, you still need to keep portion size of complex carbs in mind.

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.

Recap

Favor complex carbs (wheat, quinoa, etc.) which burn more slowly than simple carbs (like white bread and rice). Complex carbs also offer more nutrients.

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 through afternoon slumps.
  • Eat a dinner packed with lean protein, green veggies, and a complex carb side. This kind of meal is filling and nutrient-dense. 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 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, for example, can help you choose a plan that works with your budget, preferences, and needs.

Recap

Studies have shown that a lower-carb, high-fat, high-protein breakfast may help reduce blood sugar. Eat a high-fiber lunch to avoid afternoon slumps. Try to combine protein, vegetables, and whole grains at dinner.

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, you should 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 can slow the entry of glucose into the bloodstream. They can also be used for energy when you're limiting carbs.

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. These guidelines are jointly published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Other expert groups (e.g., 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 women without diabetes
  • No more than 9 teaspoons or 37.5 grams of added sugar for adult men without diabetes

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

Recap

While there are no firm guidelines on added sugar consumption if you have diabetes, it's best to limit the amount you consume.

Adding Fat and Protein

Eat meals that contain carbs, protein, and healthy fats. 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 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 products

Recap

Healthy fats and protein can help you keep your glucose levels in balance. 

Summary

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

Avoid eating refined carbs like white bread and white rice. These are carbs that lack important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 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

Everyone with diabetes should receive diabetes self-management education (DSME) on an ongoing basis. This is especially true if you are recently diagnosed.

DSME has been proven to help diabetes outcomes. If you have not received this type of education, ask your doctor 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. On some extremely low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, you may get only 5% to 10% of your daily calories from carbs.

Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and carbs.

  2. EndocrineWeb. Treatment of diabetes: the diabetic diet.

  3. American Diabetes Association. 5. Facilitating behavior change and well-being to improve health outcomes: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes-2020. Diabetes Care. 2020;43(Suppl 1):S48-S65. doi:10.2337/dc20-S005

  4. American Diabetes Association. 6. Glycemic targets: standards of medical care in diabetes-2020. Diabetes Care. 2020;43(Suppl 1):S66-S76. doi:10.2337/dc20-S006

  5. American Diabetes Association. Meal planning.

  6. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Carbohydrates and blood sugar.

  7. Chang CR, Francois ME, Little JP. Restricting carbohydrates at breakfast is sufficient to reduce 24-hour exposure to postprandial hyperglycemia and improve glycemic variability. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;109(5):1302-1309. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy261

  8. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Sugary drinks.

  9.  U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, 9th Edition. Washington, D.C.; 2020.

  10. American Heart Association. Federal dietary guidelines emphasize healthy eating habits but fall short on added sugars. Published: December 29, 2020.

  11. American Heart Association. Added sugars.

  12. Powers MA, Bardsley J, Cypress M, et al. Diabetes self-management education and support in type 2 diabetes: a joint position statement of the American Diabetes Association, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(8):1323-34. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.05.012.

  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, 9th edition. Washington, D.C.; 2020.

  14. Shilpa J, Mohan V. Ketogenic diets: boon or baneIndian J Med Res. 2018;148(3):251-253. doi:10.4103/ijmr.IJMR_1666_18

Additional Reading