Counting Carbohydrates

calories and carbohydrates fact sheet

To best control your blood sugar:

  • Eat three meals a day, roughly 4–6 hours apart.
  • Do not skip meals.
  • Try to consistently eat the same amount of carbohydrate at each meal.

Counting calories might be something you’ve already done at one time or another in your life. Counting carbohydrates may be something new to you. So why is counting carbohydrates so important when you have diabetes?

Counting carbohydrates:

  • Keeps you in control of your blood sugar
  • Keeps you in balance with with your medication or insulin dose
  • Keeps you in control of food portions to manage your body weight

How much carbohydrate do I need each day?

Carbohydrates are measured in units called grams. Grams are a measure of weight.

The total grams or amount of carbohydrate you need each day depends on your calorie goals, activity level and personal preferences.

Carbohydrates generally provide 45-65% of your daily calories.

For most people with type 1 diabetes, this ranges from 150-250 grams of carbohydrate a day. How you distribute this carbohydrate throughout the day can also make a difference in your blood sugar.

To best control your blood sugar:

  • Eat three meals a day, roughly 4-6 hours apart.
  • Do not skip meals.
  • Try to consistently eat the same amount of carbohydrate at each meal.

Your registered dietitian can help you choose a carbohydrate goal and daily meal plan that keeps your food, medication and physical activity in mind.

How much carbohydrate is found in the foods I eat?

There are many resources you can use to count carbohydrates:

  • Nutrition Facts food labels on packaged foods list the total grams of carbohydrate.
  • The American Diabetes Association Exchange Lists for Meal Planning: Choose Your Foods lists grams of carbohydrate per exchange serving size. In this system, one carbohydrate exchange serving equals 15 grams of carbohydrate.
  • Carbohydrate counting and food composition books are available. These resources can also be found online.
  • Some cookbooks are available that provide nutrition information.
  • Many restaurant chains, including fast food outlets, have brochures available that list nutrition information for each of their offerings. This nutrition information often includes the amount of carbohydrates and will save you from having to make your own calculations.
  • Computer software programs for hand-held devices.
  • Some insulin pumps.

Learn how to count carbohydrates in the following sections using:

What do I need to get started counting carbohydrates?

To get you started counting carbohydrates, pick up these items:

  • A calculator
  • Measuring cups
  • A food scale

It is tempting to “eyeball” or “guesstimate” food measurements. However, when you first begin carbohydrate counting, don’t guess. Use measuring cups to see what portion sizes look like – you may be surprised! For some foods, weighing out your food portion on a food scale may also be helpful. Estimating 1/2 cup of breakfast cereal, or selecting one ounce of bread or fruit isn’t as easy as you might think.

To sum up, here are some tips about getting started with carbohydrate counting:

  1. With any new skill, carbohydrate counting takes practice. To improve your confidence and accuracy, measure your foods.
  2. Remember to count carbohydrates from all food sources – starch and sugars. This includes milk and yogurt, fruit and starchy vegetables too– not just breads, pasta, rice and cereals!
  3. If you eat too much carbohydrate, your blood sugar will be too high, and if you eat too little carbohydrate for the medication dose, your blood sugar may get too low. Eat a similar amount of carbohydrate at similar times day to day.
  4. Start a food diary to keep track of your carbohydrate counting. You can also learn more about your eating patterns. Try starting with 3 days of tracking. Write down everything that you have to eat or drink, including portion sizes. Use this information to help make adjustments in your meal plan. Bring your food diary to your diabetes appointments to share with your health care team.

Tools to help you with your carbohydrate counting:

Self-assessment Quiz

Self assessment quizzes are available for topics covered in this website. To find out how much you have learned about Understanding Carbohydrates, take our self assessment quiz when you have completed this section. The quiz is multiple choice. Please choose the single best answer to each question. At the end of the quiz, your score will display. If your score is over 70% correct, you are doing very well. If your score is less than 70%, you can return to this section and review the information.

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