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Carb Count with Confidence


3 tips for basic carb-counting 

By Dana Gottesman


Is there such a big difference between chowing down on a slice of toast or some cereal for breakfast? If you have diabetes, think twice before you bite — the carbohydrates you choose can directly impact your glucose levels and insulin usage. Foods that contain carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels. Carbohydrate counting, a meal planning technique, can help you manage your diabetes by making sure you get the number of carbs you need to keep your blood sugar balanced. More advanced carb counting may also allow you to adjust the amount of insulin you take at mealtimes based on the amount of carbs you eat at your meal.

“Counting carbohydrates can help you shed pounds and lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” says Rita Singer, RD, a nutritionist and founder of the company Nutrition RS. “All the small changes you make at meal time can have a huge impact on your diabetes management and overall health status.”

Count your carbs with confidence: Here are three tips to get you started with basic carb counting.


#1: Keep it personal

The amount of carbohydrates a person needs to keep their blood sugar in check varies. Think of your individual diet as a Rubik’s cube, where your own nutritional requirements and lifestyle factors have to be configured to meet all your personal needs. Speaking to your doctor or another health professional for support can help to simplify the process and empower you to make the right dietary changes. “Diabetes manifests itself differently in every individual,” says Singer. “A 6-foot inactive male does not have the same daily carbohydrate needs as a 5-foot female marathon runner. We need to look at your level of activity, age, weight and other factors.”

For the average person, a meal should generally contain around 45 to 65 grams of carbohydrates, or 3 to 4 carb servings, according to the American Diabetes Association (1 carb serving is about 15 grams of carbohydrates). To stay in that range, you may find you have to eat smaller portions, cut back on foods that are high in fat and sugar (which can cause blood sugar levels to peak and then plummet dramatically), and look out for carb sources that contain whole grains (which contain sugars that your body absorbs more slowly). Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian, diabetes educator or other nutrition professional so that you can develop a more customized meal plan together.

#2: Know your carbs

You know that bagels and other bread and grain products, like crackers, cereal, rice and pasta, are packed with carbohydrates. But even your favorite soft drink and a simple cup of yogurt contain carbs that count toward your daily total. Carbs can come in the form of starches, sugars and fibers, and are found in milk, fruits, certain vegetables, beans and even artificially sweetened baked goods and candy.

“Sugar-free does not necessarily mean carb-free,” says Janice Baker, RD, a nutritionist and certified diabetes educator for Baker Nutrition. “Even if a food or drink contains sugar substitutes, it may still be high in carbs.” The only way to know for sure about a food’s carb content is to flip over the product and read the nutrition label.

And when it comes to carbs, some are better than others. Choosing nutritionally rich carbs like steel-cut oatmeal or brown rice (which are packed with fiber, calcium and other energy-boosting vitamins and minerals) over empty carbs (like refined grains or sugars) may help you avoid unnecessary blood sugar highs and lows. Do you want to see if your eating style needs a little makeover? Try food journaling. By writing down what you eat and when, “you can get a really good sense of your diet,” says Singer, “and be more conscious of the carbs, portion sizes and timing of all your meals.”  You can also keep track of how certain carbohydrates affect your blood sugar, which will help you make more informed choices at mealtimes.


#3: Decipher food label lingo

One major key to carb counting: scouring the nutrition labels on the back of packaged foods. There are two main lines on the label that should get your attention:

  • First, check out the total carbohydrates section. This lets you know how many carbs are in your item, and includes carbs from sugar, starch and fiber.
  • Next, look at the serving size. Nutrition labels on food items can be tricky. For instance, does your go-to snack of a blueberry muffin say a serving is for one whole muffin or just a quarter of it? Make sure the amount per serving corresponds to the actual quantity you are eating. You may need to double or triple the information on the label to figure out the carb amount, and a portion size to match.

But what about unpackaged or unlabeled foods? When counting those carbs, you’ll need to develop a knack for eyeballing carbohydrate totals and portion sizes. Here are a few ways to make things easier:

  • Create a cheat sheet that lists your favorite foods and their carb content and portion size for easy reference — that way, you can easily mix and match carb sources to hit your desired mark each meal.
  • Evaluate portions accurately by measuring your food with measuring cups or spoons, or weighing it on a food scale. You may want to keep cut-up fruit you weighed or a pre-measured serving of cereal in plastic baggies or small containers for your convenience.  
  • Search by type of food and quantity on accredited websites with carb counting calculators, such as My Food Advisor from the American Diabetes Association, and USDA Super Tracker.
  • Going out to eat? Check out the nutrition content of menu items while dining out with apps like MedHelp's My Diet Diary for iOS and Android. 

Published May 6, 2013.


Dana Gottesman is a health and lifestyle writer based in the New York City area.  

Reviewed by Joseph Sclafani, MD on April 16, 2015.