Carb Counting Overview

Counting carbohydrates is the foundation of managing diabetes. The practice involves reading food labels and researching nutrition facts to find out how many grams of carbohydrates are in the serving of food you eat, then tracking the total grams of each meal to reach your goal.

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The importance of carbohydrates for people with diabetes

Carbohydrates are the main source of glucose (sugar), which is used as fuel by all cells in the body. Since carbohydrates are made up of sugar, consuming them can cause glucose to overflow from the bloodstream. If you have diabetes, it can affect your blood sugar balance and insulin levels. Carb counting is a measured way to monitor your carbohydrate intake so as not to compromise your glucose control.

Pros and cons of counting carbohydrates

Counting carbs is an easy way to follow a low-carb diet, but the quality of the food you eat still plays a role in your overall health.

Advantages of counting carbohydrates

  • Carbohydrate counting can be a useful app for those looking to follow a low carb diet.

  • Food packaging labels simplify carbohydrate counting

  • Remember that your carbohydrate goal is a tangible measure of how much you need to eat.

Cons of counting carbohydrates

  • Tracking carbohydrates alone does not necessarily mean eating healthy.

  • It may be easier to trust foods packaged with nutrition labels than whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that do not have carbohydrates on the list.

  • Not all foods contain carbohydrates, but they can still be high in calories and fat, like steak or bacon; This can be difficult to track if you only count carbohydrates.

The bottom line from this is that counting carbohydrates can be a healthy way to control your blood sugar and make it easier to view and track your intake, but the quality of carbohydrates you eat does matter. For best results, focus on high-quality, less processed foods, such as whole grains, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and focus on carbohydrate options .

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends carbohydrate counting for people with type 1 diabetes receiving intensive insulin therapy, as it helps improve overall glycemic control. The ADA notes that when consuming a mixed meal that contains carbohydrates and is high in fat and / or protein, the insulin dose should not be based solely on the carbohydrate count .

Methods for counting carbohydrates

There are two main methods for counting carbohydrates. Find out more, and then choose the style that suits you best.

Diabetic metabolism system

If you are using a diabetic metabolic system, you will have an eating plan, which will likely be developed by a dietitian, choosing how much food to eat at each meal and snack. the number of foods you can choose with each meal. For example, you can have a carbohydrate option and a lean protein option. A carbohydrate option is usually 15 grams of carbohydrate (or often 10-15 grams) .

The exchange system will do everything for you. Rather than reading labels and counting carbohydrates, diabetic metabolism lists give you 'options' that are roughly the same for carbohydrates (and for other categories, including vegetables, protein, and fat).

Carbohydrates should have 80 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of fat. This does not mean that all carbohydrates have the same serving size. For example, each of these food servings equates to one carbohydrate option:

  • 3 cups popcorn
  • 1 slice of bread (1 ounce)
  • 1/2 cup of cooked pasta

Carbohydrate count (target grams)

With this method of diabetes meal planning, instead of aiming for a target number of carbohydrate servings with each meal, you will aim for grams of carbohydrate, such as 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal and 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates for a snack. .

If you want to convert the total carbohydrates in your meal into "carbohydrate servings," you can take the total carbohydrates and divide by 15.

For example, let's say you want to find out how many carbohydrate servings are in one serving of lasagna. If you look at lasagna in the nutrient database, you can see that 1 cup contains 31 grams of carbohydrates. Divide by 15 and you get 2 (you can round up or down to the nearest whole number). So a cup of lasagna is worth two carbohydrate servings.


Before you're ready to get started, there are a few key steps you need to take:

  • Calculate Your Individual Goal – Remember that everyone's individual needs are different. Work with your healthcare team, including your registered dietitian and healthcare provider, to set your carbohydrate goals for yourself, then review serving sizes, food labels, and carbohydrate counts in foods to keep a constant count. For example, if your target intake is 45 grams of carbohydrate per meal, you will need to add the amount of carbohydrates in your food ingredients so that it does not exceed 45 grams.
  • Gather your resources: Check the label and start looking up nutrition information in the USDA Food Composition Database to find out how many grams of carbohydrate are in the serving of food you eat.
  • Keeping a diary – Keeping a current mental carbohydrate count can be difficult to remember, so it is helpful to keep a food diary in which you can record your carbohydrate intake for each meal and snack. For some people a notepad and pen will work better, for others it is easier to update a digital note on your phone or use an app (see below for more details).

Carbohydrate counting apps

There are several useful carb counting apps to help you keep track of your intake with easy access on the go.

Carb manager

This easy-to-use carb tracker app offers a basic carb count, helping you track over 1 million foods. View your averages with easy-to-use graphical analysis and access over 1,000 low carb recipes. Carb Manager syncs with most fitness trackers too. The app is free to download and use, but a paid subscription to additional services is also offered.


MyFitnessPal is a universal nutrition and fitness tracker app that offers an easy way to track your daily meals and track your carbohydrate, protein, fat, and micronutrient intake. App notifications provide helpful reminders that you can choose your meals every day. The application can be downloaded and used for free.

MyPlate calorie tracker

Comprised of a single carb / calorie counter and social media app, MyPlate Calorie Tracker is an easy-to-use nutrition tracker with a built-in social community that provides additional motivation and support to help you reach your health and fitness goals. The app is free to download and use, but a paid subscription is also offered for additional features.

Things to remember when counting carbohydrates

Keep communication open with your healthcare team and be sure to reach out to them if you have any questions, but here are some helpful tips.

  • Recognize all carbohydrates – Don't just think about breads and cookies – milk, yogurt, fruits, sugar, and starchy vegetables are also sources of carbohydrates.
  • Watch Your Serving Size – When reading labels, remember to look at the recommended serving size at the top of the nutrition label. This number should tell you the approximate portion to eat and how to count those carbs effectively.
  • Try not to stress out – counting carbohydrates may seem overwhelming, but it's really just a tool to help you practice mindful eating. Don't get obsessed with numbers if they make you worry about what you're eating – just aim for your total target amount and instead focus on whole grains, complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Remember Rule 15: Most fruits, vegetables, and starches (1 cup pumpkin, 1 ear of corn, 1 small white potato) contain about 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving, which is a good rule of thumb to remember for food. no label.
  • Familiarize yourself with portion sizes – The ability to accurately determine portions by eye without weights is a very useful skill when eating out.
  • Consider Investing in Tools – While measuring cups and small food scales are not essential to successful carbohydrate counting, they can help you accurately count and track portions at home.
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