How to Calculate Carb Requirements for Each Meal and Snack

Ever stood in the grocery aisle reading food labels, thinking about how to calculate carb requirements? You try to figure out what on earth a “percent daily value” is, and how that might possibly have anything to do with your craving for tortilla chips.  You spend twenty minutes trying to find something you’re “allowed” to eat. Meanwhile, shoppers who don’t have diabetes just skip right over those labels and pick up their jars of marshmallow fluff and run! 🙂

Previously, I wrote about how to accomplish carbohydrate counting, as well as an easier way to manage blood sugars called the Plate Method.  In this post, I’ll walk you through the steps you need to take to determine your personal daily carbohydrate needs.  Then, we’ll break that down into a specific amount of carb for each meal and snack.

Factors Affecting Your Daily Carb Requirement

Each person is unique, and so is his or her body’s daily carb requirement.  Your body’s need for calories and carbohydrates varies depending on several factors:

  • Age:  The younger you are, the higher your metabolism.  A person who needs 2,000 Calories a day at age 20 may only need 1,200 Calories a day at age 70.  I know that’s not fair, but it’s true.

  • Gender:  Men usually need more calories and carbs than women because they carry more muscle mass.

  • Weight and muscle mass:  The more muscular you are, the more calories and carbs you burn at rest.

  • Physical activity level:  The more active you are, the more calories and carbs you’ll burn off, and the more calories and carbs you’ll need to eat to maintain your weight.

  • Anti-diabetic medication or insulin dose (if you take either of those):  If you tend toward hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) you may have a tendency to “feed the insulin.” This happens when people are afraid of going low, so they overeat rather than using less medication.  If you’re in this crowd, I don’t blame you — low blood sugar feels bad and it’s scary.  This is an issue that will need to be worked out with the help of a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, like me.

Click Here to Use the Carb Calculator

Understanding Your Daily Carb Requirement Calculator Results

After you calculate carb requirements for yourself, you’ll notice that I didn’t calculate grams of carb needed per day.  Instead, I calculated grams of carb needed per meal and per snack. That’s because our bodies need to take in smaller, regular doses of carbohydrates to keep our blood sugar levels on an even keel. We don’t want to eat a paltry amount of carbs all day long, and then go crazy “spending” all of our carbs in the evening.

Your results are an estimate of the number of grams of carbohydrate you need at each of 3 meals and 3 snacks per day.

If you already count carbs and you have a system that’s working for you, then, by all means, stick with what’s working.

Please note:  If you take insulin or an anti-diabetic medication that comes with the risk of hypoglycemia (such as a sulfonylurea), please consult your healthcare team before changing your carb intake and/or your medications.*

Are snacks required as part of my daily carb requirements?

I get lots of questions about whether snacks are required.  The answer is no, not usually.

If your blood sugar is low, you already know that you’ll have to have to treat that low with simple carbohydrates to bring it up.

If you have repeated lows, you probably need to talk with your healthcare team about adjusting your medication.

Most people who ask this question about snacks aren’t talking about treating hypoglycemia.  They’re just asking about everyday eating.  If your blood sugar is normal or high and you’re not hungry, there’s no reason to snack.  You’ll only end up increasing your blood sugar and gaining weight that you probably don’t want to gain.

Do my daily carb requirements have any wiggle room?

Now you know approximately how many grams of carbohydrates you need to shoot for at each meal and snack, and you can use your label reading and carb counting skills to help you stick to your carbohydrate “budget.”

It would be almost impossible to get exactly the same number of grams of carbohydrate at every meal, and that’s OK.  If you stay within 10% of your goal, you’re doing great.  For example, if your recommended amount of carbohydrate at each meal is 45 grams, but you can stay between 41 and 49 grams at each meal, you’re doing beautifully.

Can I Calculate Carbs to Calories?

This is another question people ask, “If I know the number of calories in a food, can calculate carbs from that, or vice versa?” Not necessarily. That would only work if the food was pure carbohydrate. Since most foods are a combination of fat, protein, and carbs, you’d need to know how much of all three of these macronutrients was in your food before you could calculate calories.

If you have questions about your personal carbohydrate needs, feel free to book an appointment with me or another RD at Nourish.

*This information is not a substitute for medical advice.  Please follow the advice of your healthcare team.

Action Steps

Use the calculator above to estimate your meal and snack-time carbohydrate needs.

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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