Managing Diabetes: Ideal Daily Carbohydrates

The diabetes diet is an individualized eating plan

Top view of wholegrain and cereal composition shot on rustic wooden table.

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Carbohydrates, which include any type of sugar, starch, or fiber, are a primary source of energy (along with the two other macronutrients, protein and fat). But not all carbs are created equal. Some bring vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional value to the table while others are, for the most part, a source of empty calories.

Regardless of nutritional value, for people with diabetes whose bodies are unable to manage excess levels of glucose (sugar), carbohydrate intake can be a fraught issue: During digestion, the body breaks down carbs into glucose which then floods the bloodstream where it can cause potentially life-threatening damage if not kept in check.

For this reason, the recommendations for daily carbohydrate intake is somewhat different for people with diabetes than for those who do not have this disease.

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

People with diabetes should 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, fiber, and added sugars 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. Counting carbs can be helpful to keep an eye on your overall intake, especially if you have been diagnosed with diabetes.

carbohydrate counting

How Many Carbs Are Right for Me?

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

Recommended Amount of Carbs For People With Diabetes

Most people with diabetes are advised to get no more than 45% of daily calories from carbohydrates. On a 1600-calorie diet, for example, that would mean 135 grams to 180 grams per day. Broken down into three meals and two snacks, this comes to 45 grams and 60 grams per meal and 15 grams to 30 grams per snack. This may change depending on your specific calorie needs.

Additionally, 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). Others practice estimated guess carbohydrate counting or eat low-carb diets. 

Recommended Amount of Carbs for People Without Diabetes

The daily recommended intake of carbohydrates for adults ranges from 45% to 60% of calories. On a 1600-calorie diet, that comes to around 180 grams to 240 grams per day or 60 grams to 80 grams per meal. On a 2000-calorie diet, that looks like 225 grams to 325 grams of carbs per day or 75 to 108 grams of carbs per meal.

Factors Determining Your Individual Carb Count

Figuring out the ideal number of carbohydrates you should eat daily needs to be a collaborative effort between your healthcare provider, a dietitian or certified diabetes educator, and you. 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 conditions, including:

  • Diabetes medication (some must be taken with food
  • Insulin, for anyone on insulin, the timing of carb intake is important)
  • Eating patterns
  • Blood glucose response
  • Exercise

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.

Sample Meal Plan

Another way to keep track of your carbohydrate intake is by creating a meal plan with your dietitian. Mapping out your daily meals can provide a helpful framework for making sure you're balancing your carb intake to just 45 grams to 60 grams per meal (or less). When planning your meals, pair any carbs with a protein and fat to slow the uptake of glucose uptake by your bloodstream.

Here are a few things to consider when creating a meal plan:

  • 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 any 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.

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

Breakfast: 

  • 3 eggs with two slices of whole grain toast (30g carbohydrate), lettuce, tomato
  • 1 small piece of fruit (15 g carbohydrate)
  • Total carbohydrate: 45 g carbohydrate 

Lunch: 

  • Salad with lettuce, cucumber, carrot, 1/4 avocado (~5 g carbohydrate) 
  • 1 cup low-sodium lentil soup (30 g carbohydrate)
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn (15 g carbohydrate)
  • Total carbohydrate: ~50 g carbohydrate

Snack:  

  • 1 small apple (15 g carbohydrate)
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter 
  • Total carbohydrate: ~15 g carbohydrate 

Dinner: 

  • 4 oz grilled salmon
  • 1 cup roasted asparagus with 1/2 cup cannellini beans (20 g carbohydrate )
  • 1 large sweet potato (35 g carbohydrate)
  • Total carbohydrate: ~55 g carbohydrate

Snack: 

  • 1 nonfat plain Greek yogurt (7 g carbohydrate)
  • 3/4 cup blueberries (15 g carbohydrate)
  • Total carbohydrate: ~22 g carbohydrate 

How Many Added Sugars Are Right for You

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. Keep an eye on added sugars in packaged foods, which can be the biggest culprit of empty carbs. Current dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of calories come from added sugar. That specifically 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

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.

Types of Fat and Proteins to Include

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.

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

When planning your meals, keep a mental checklist of a plate complete with complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, which will help you keep your glucose levels in better balance than by eating simple or refined carbs alone.

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 through individualized education. If you have not received this type of education, ask your primary doctor about where you can find a certified diabetes educator.

Until then, you can start by implementing a modified, consistent carbohydrate diet. The American Diabetes Association recommends starting with about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal. You may ultimately end up on a lower carbohydrate diet, but testing your blood sugar before and after meals can help you to see if your current meal plan is working. Ideally, two hours after eating, your blood sugar should be less than 180mg/dL. If it is higher, you may need to adjust your meal plan by reducing your carbohydrate intake.

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Article 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. Updated September 19, 2019.

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

  3. EndocrineWeb. Treatment of diabetes: the diabetic diet. Updated April 2, 2019.

  4. Today's Dietitian. Understanding advanced carbohydrate counting. Updated December 2013.

  5. American Diabetes Association. Meal planning.

  6. 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

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

  8. American Heart Association. Added sugars. Updated April 17, 2018.

  9. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes self-management education.

  10. dLife. Blood tests for diabetes: two-hour postprandial glucose test. Updated September 2017.

Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Diabetes and Carbohydrates. 2019.

  • American Diabetes Association. Carbohydrate Counting. Accessed on-line. October 25, 2015: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/carbohydrate-counting.html
  • American Diabetes Association. Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes – 2015. Diabetes Care. 2015 Jan; 38 (Suppl 1): S1-90.