Carbohydrate Counting

Carb counting is a way for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes to better control their blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates or “carbs” for short, are one of the main nutrients along with fats, and proteins that our body needs for energy. Carb counting is keeping track of how many carbs we consume in a specific amount of time.  

Which Foods Have Carbs? 

Carbs are found in many foods including those in the grains, fruit, vegetable, and dairy foods groups. The food groups with the most carbohydrates are grains, fruit, and dairy.  

  • Grains include pasta, oatmeal, rice, bread, cereal, popcorn, quinoa, and tortillas. The best way to consume carbs from grains is to eat whole wheat foods like wheat bread than refined carbs like white bread, white pasta and cookies.  Refined carbs do not contain as much fiber and nutrients as whole grain or whole wheat foods. 

  • Fruits include grapes, blueberries, strawberries, and bananas. They contain more carbs than vegetables because fruit have natural sugars. Sugar is another form of carbohydrates. Natural sugar in fruit is called simple carbohydrates.  

  • Surprisingly, dairy foods including yogurt, milk, and cheese contain many carbohydrates. 

  • As for vegetables, this food group contains carbs as well but not many. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas have more carbs than non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables include broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, and spinach.  

All food groups are all important to maintain a healthy diet. To learn more about the food groups, MyPlate is a simple guide provided by the USDA that shows all the food groups in desired portions on a plate for any meal time. Foods not included in MyPlate like cookies, pastries, and soda also contain carbohydrates and sugar that influences blood sugar levels as well. 

Why is Carb Counting Important? 

In the body carbohydrates are further broken down to glucose, or sugar. Because carbs break down into sugar, carbs affect blood sugar levels. Keeping track of carbs eaten in a certain time frame can help manage blood sugar levels.  

How to Count Carbs 

Carbs are in most foods so it important to check nutrition labels. Nutrition labels will show the amount of carbs in grams in food. For example, 1 cup of cooked pasta contains about 45 grams of carbs, or 3 carb units. 10 crackers have 22 grams of carbs, or 1.5 carb units. When looking at a nutrition label, it is important to read the serving size for each food. The serving size is listed at the top of the nutrition label. To accurately count carbs, it is important to have the suggested serving size.  To count carbs using carb units, divide by the amount of carbohydrates listed on the nutrition label by the number 15. 1 carb unit is 15 grams carb. For example, the pasta listed above is 3 carb units because 45 divided by 15 is 3. Foods like produce do not have nutrition labels. For example, fruits and vegetables do not come in packages. To learn the amount of carbs for these foods, research and reading will help. Here is a quick guide:  

Produce  

Serving/Amount  

Carbs 

Carb Unit 

Apple  

1 medium  

15 grams 

1  

Potato 

1 medium 

30 grams 

2  

Baby Carrots  

10 carrots  

8 grams 

½  

Banana 

1 medium  

27 grams 

2  

Red Tomato 

1 medium (whole)  

4.8 grams 

<½  

  

How Many Carbs Does a Person with Diabetes Need? 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs make up 45-65% of daily calorie needs, but the amount of carbs a person needs depends on many factors. These factors include height, weight, physical activity and age. For persons with diabetes who take insulin, the amount of carbs also depends on insulin doses. Usually carbs consumed at each meal and snack time are consistent from day to day. To get more information on specific carbohydrate needs contact a certified diabetes educator or a Registered Dietitian to find a carb counting plan that works for you. 

References:  

NIH NIDDK. Diabetes Diet, Eating & Physical Activity NIH2016 [updated 12/2016; cited 2020 June 4] Available from:  https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/diet-eating-physical-activity/carbohydrate-counting 

ADA. Get Smart on Carb Counting. [cited 2020 June 4] Available from: https://www.diabetes.org/nutrition/understanding-carbs/carb-counting