Carbohydrate counting is a method of meal planning that involves calculating the amount of carbs you eat at each meal and snack. Keeping track of your daily carbs can help you keep your blood sugar in your target range. That’s because carbs—which include sugars, starches, and fiber—affect your blood sugar more than protein or fat.
Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream, raising your blood sugar levels. Balancing your carb intake with physical activity (and diabetes medications, if you take any) can help keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible, which lowers your risk of diabetes-related complications.
Simply counting the grams of carbs in the food you eat is the most popular and accurate method of carbohydrate counting. Older methods of keeping track of your carb intake include:
The carb choice system. One “carb choice” is about 15 grams of carbs. Examples of foods that contain about 15 grams of carbs include one slice of bread; 1/3 cup of pasta or rice; 1 small fresh whole fruit; and 1/2 cup of starchy vegetables. A food with 30 grams of carbs would be considered two carb choices.
The dietary exchange lists system. Each exchange list groups together foods that contain approximately the same amount of carbs, protein, fat, and calories—and therefore have about the same effect on your blood sugar. Any item on a specific food list can be exchanged with any other item on that list. For example, you could have 1/2 cup of beans or 1/3 cup of cooked pasta for your starch choice.
The amount of carbs you should eat a day depends upon a variety of factors, including your age, weight, level of physical activity, medications, and blood sugar targets.
Tips for Counting Carbs
The first step in carb counting is working with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to develop a meal plan that outlines the amount of carbs you should eat at meals and snacks throughout the day. Then, use these tips to make sure your intake is within your target range:
- Learn which foods contain carbohydrates. Many people know that sweets—and starchy foods, such as bread, pasta, and cereal—contain carbs, but fruits, vegetables, dairy products, beans, and legumes contain carbs, too. Remember that beverages, like soda and fruit juices, should also be included in your carb count. (However, sweet beverages should be avoided as much as possible due to their ability to spike blood sugar.)
- For foods that have labels: look at the serving size and grams of total carbohydrate (which includes sugar, starch, and fiber) per serving. If you have more than one serving, multiply the number of total carbs by the number of servings.
- For foods that don’t have a label, you can estimate the amount of carbohydrates by using an exchange chart or an online tool, such as the USDA SuperTracker. Another helpful resource is the American Diabetes Association’s Complete Guide to Carb Counting.
- When making a home-cooked meal, estimate and add up the grams of carbs of the ingredients you use. Use a food scale and measuring cups to help estimate the amount of carbs. Another option is using a recipe nutrition calculator like this one at Verywell.com.
- Many restaurants include nutrition information on their menus or websites, so you can check carb counts when eating out. You can also use resources like CalorieKing, a website that lists nutrition information for many popular restaurants and foods.
- Add up the number of grams of carbohydrate from each meal and snack you eat to get your total for the day.
Tracking your food intake and testing your blood sugar before (and about two hours after) meals can help you determine whether carbohydrate counting is working for you. If your blood sugar is consistently out of your target range, you may need to change your eating plan.