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Counting carbohydrates

Alternate Names

Carb counting; Carbohydrate-controlled diet; Diabetic diet

Nutrients and Carbohydrates

Many foods contain carbohydrates (carbs), including:

  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Cereal, bread, pasta, and rice
  • Milk, soy milk, yogurt, and ice cream
  • Beans, legumes, and lentils
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn
  • Sweets like cookies, candy, cake, jam and jelly, honey, and other foods that contain sugar
  • Snack foods like chips and crackers

Your body quickly turns carbohydrates into a sugar called glucose. This raises your blood sugar, or blood glucose, level.

Most foods that contain carbohydrates are nutritious and are an important part of a healthy diet. The goal is not to limit carbohydrates in the diet completely, but to make sure that you are not eating too many. Eating a regular amount of carbohydrates throughout the day can help keep your blood sugar level steady.

People with diabetes can better control their blood sugar if they count how many carbohydrates they eat. People with diabetes who take insulin can use carb counting to help them determine the exact dose of insulin they need at meals.

Your dietitian will teach you a technique called "carb counting."

Types of Carbohydrates

Your body turns all carbohydrates into energy. There are 2 major types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are sugars found naturally in some foods and added to others. Simple carbohydrates include:

  • Candy
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Sugar-sweetened products
  • Table sugar
  • Vegetables 

Complex carbohydrates are starches that are found naturally in foods. Your body breaks them down into sugar after you eat them. They include:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Legumes, such as beans and chickpeas
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes 

Counting Your Carbs

Some foods, such as jelly beans, contain only carbohydrates. Others foods, such as animal proteins (all kinds of meat, fish, and eggs), have no carbohydrates.

Most foods, even vegetables, have some carbohydrates. But most green, non-starchy vegetables are very low in carbohydrates.

Most adults with diabetes should eat no more than 200 carbohydrate grams per day. The daily recommended amount for adults is 135 grams per day, but each person should have their own carbohydrate goal. Pregnant women need at least 175 grams of carbohydrates each day.

Packaged foods have labels that tell you how many carbohydrates a food has. They are measured in grams. You can use food labels to count the carbohydrates that you eat. When you are carb counting, a serving equals an amount of food that contains 15 grams of carbohydrate. The serving size listed on a package is not always the same as 1 serving in carbohydrate counting. For example, if a single-serving package of food contains 30 grams of carbohydrate, the package actually contains 2 servings when you are carb counting.

The food label will say what 1 serving size is and how many servings are in the package. If a bag of chips says that it contains 2 servings and you eat the entire bag, then you will need to multiply the label information by 2. For example, let's say the label on a bag of chips states that it contains 2 servings, and 1 serving of chips provides 11 grams of carbohydrate. If you eat the entire bag of chips, you have eaten 22 grams of carbohydrates.

Sometimes the label will list sugar, starch, and fiber separately. The carbohydrate count for a food is the total of these. Use only this total number to count your carbs.

When you count carbs in foods that you cook, you will have to measure the portion of food after cooking it. For example, cooked long grain rice has 15 grams of carbohydrate per 1/3 cup. If you eat a cup of cooked long grain rice, you will be eating 45 grams of carbohydrates.

Here are some examples of foods and servings sizes that have 15 grams of carbohydrate:

  • ½ cup of canned fruit (without the juice or syrup)
  • 1 cup of melon or berries
  • 2 tablespoons of dried fruit
  • ½ cup of cooked oatmeal
  • 1/3 cup of cooked pasta (can vary with the shape)
  • 1/3 cup of cooked long grain rice
  • ¼ cup of cooked short grain rice
  • ½ cup cooked beans, peas, or corn
  • 1 slice of bread
  • 3 cups popcorn (popped)
  • 1 cup milk or soy milk
  • 3 ounces of baked potato

Adding up Your Carbohydrates

The total amount of carbohydrates you eat in a day is the sum of the carbohydrate counts of everything you eat.

When you are learning how to count carbs, use a log book or sheet of paper to help you track them. As time passes, it will get easier to estimate your carbohydrates.

Plan to see a dietitian every 6 months. This will help you refresh your knowledge of carb counting. A dietitian can help you determine the right amount of carbohydrate servings to eat each day, based on your personal caloric needs and other factors. The dietitian can also recommend how to spread out the carbohydrates you eat in your meals and snacks.

Adding up Your Carbohydrates

The total amount of carbohydrates you eat in a day is the sum of the carbohydrate counts of everything you eat.

When you are learning how to count carbs, use a log book or sheet of paper to help you track them. Over time, it will get easier to estimate your carbohydrates.

Plan to see a dietitian every 6 months. This will help you refresh your knowledge of carb counting. A dietitian can help you determine the right amount of carbohydrate servings to eat each day, based on your personal caloric needs and other factors. The dietitian can also recommend how to spread out the carbohydrates you eat in your meals and snacks.

References

American Diabetes Association. Carbohydrate counting. Available at http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/carb-counting. Accessed December 8, 2012.

American Diabetes Association. Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes: a position statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2008;31:S61-S78.

Mahan KL, Escott-Stump S, Raymond JL. Krause, MV, eds. In: Krause's Food & the Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2012.

Noel MB, Thompson M, Wadland WC, Summers Holtrop J. Nutrition and family medicine. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 37.


Review Date: 10/28/2014
Reviewed By: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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