Carb Counting for Diabetes

Carb counting for diabetes can be a great way to keep your blood sugars on a more even keel.  When I teach carb counting, my clients are so relieved to know that they can still have their favorite foods without “going off the wagon”.  They walk out of the office feeling like they’ve been given a gift — the gift of eating for pleasure again.  Using carb counting, you can enjoy your food and have good health too!

Why use carb counting for diabetes management?

If you’ve read up on macronutrients, you know that carbohydrates are the only foods that significantly raise your blood sugar.  Carb counting is an easier solution than the old Diabetic Exchange System, which requires you to count up every single portion of food you eat (whether it raises your blood sugar or not).  With carb counting, you only need to worry about the foods that will raise your blood glucose, and you can stop stressing about the rest of what you eat.

Which foods count as carbs?

Speaking broadly, anything in these categories of food counts as a carbohydrate:

  • Starchy foods like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta

  • Fruit and fruit juices

  • Milk and yogurt

  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas

  • Chips and pretzels

  • Cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream and candy

Don’t worry — you can still have carbs even if you want to manage your diabetes!

I know what you might be thinking because I’ve introduced the concept of carb counting to lots of people with diabetes.  When they see this list, most people say, “What!  I can’t have any of those foods????”.

That’s not what I’m saying.  I am saying that you’ll have to pay attention to how much and how often you eat those foods.

These are the basics of carb counting for diabetes:

  1. At each meal, you’ll have a recommended amount of carbohydrates.  Your personal recommendation depends on your age, gender, and activity level.  Generally, the recommendation varies from 30 grams per meal for very petite, older, sedentary women, to 75 grams per meal for very active young men.  Forty-five to sixty grams of carbohydrate per meal is a good starting point for the average person.

  2. Think of your personal carbohydrate recommendation like a budget.  Let’s imagine that my personal carb recommendation is forty-five grams per meal.  At each meal, I imagine that $45 suddenly appears in my pocket.  I can use the money for that meal but if I don’t, it will disappear out of my pocket.  I can’t decide not to have any carbs for breakfast, add those 45 grams of carbs to my 45 grams at lunch, and then splurge on 90 grams worth of carbohydrate.  If I did, my blood sugar would soar.  I have to stay within my budget at each meal so that I can keep my blood sugar in check.

  3. I can eat anything I want within my budget.  Obviously, it would be better for me to spend my carbohydrate “dollars” on high-quality foods like beans than it would for me to eat chocolate bars.  And, the more fiber I eat, the smaller spike I’ll experience in my blood sugar after a meal.  But…it’s my “money” and I can do what I want.  So, if a dish of beans and rice is worth 45 grams of carbohydrate and so is a candy bar, and I really want a candy bar, that’s my decision to make.

How to read a food label to count carbs for diabetes

  1. Look for “Total Carbohydrate” on the label.  Make note of the number of grams of carbohydrate in the food.

  2. Find the “Serving Size” at the top of the food label.  Now you know how much food you’re dealing with.

  3. Know that the Total Carbohydrate on the label refers only to the Serving Size the labels references.  In other words, the label won’t usually tell you how many grams of carbs there are in the whole container.

  4. To determine the grams of carbohydrate in the whole container of food, you would need to multiply the Total Carbohydrate by the Servings per Container.

  5. Now you know how many grams of carbohydrate are in the serving size shown at the top of the food label, and how many grams of carbohydrate there are in the whole container.

  6. Decide whether or not you want to “spend” your carbs on this particular food.  Do you like yogurt enough to spend 30 grams of carbohydrate on a 4 oz container?  If you do, great.  If that seems like a waste of carbohydrates to you, you can decide not to spend your carbs on that food.  Maybe you’d rather have 2 slices of bread instead of the container of yogurt — it’s up to you.

  7. The sugars listed on the food label are already included in the Total Carbohydrate.  You don’t need to focus on them.

  8. The more fiber in the food, the more slowly it will be digested, and that’s a good thing.  Some people like to subtract fiber from carbs to get “net carbs”.  If you’re just starting out with carb counting, there’s no need to get fancy.  All you need to think about is the Serving Size and the Total Carbohydrate.

Benefits of carb counting for diabetes

Carb counting lets you keep your blood sugar in check and enjoy foods you love.  You can eat good nutritious food most of the time, and also realize that a handful of chips or a couple of cookies is not completely off-limits as long as you “budget” for them.

Carb counting gives you the freedom to eat what you like and keep your blood sugar numbers where you want them, too.
Want an estimate of how many grams of carbohydrate you need at each meal and snack? Use my carb calculator. Just click the button below!

Action Steps:

  1. Look at the label on your favorite carbohydrate food.

  2. Find the “Total Carbohydrate”.

  3. Find the “Servings per Container”.

  4. Multiply the Total Carbohydrate by the Servings per container.

  5. Your result is the total number of grams of carbohydrate in the box, can, or bottle.

  6. Does this food or drink fit in your “budget”?

Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist. She believes food is the foundation of good health, and that our culture of obsession about body size is damaging to health, happiness, and productivity in far too many people. When not talking or writing about food and health, she can be found in the the mountains of western NC, where she lives with her family and four legged friends.

Julie Cunningham

How many carbs do YOU need?

Use my carb calcutor to get a personalized estimate of exactly how many carbs your body needs at each meal & snack in under one minute.

Yes, take me there now!

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