Carb Counting

image of carbs pasta bread fruit potatoes

Counting carbohydrates, or carbs—keeping track of the carbs in all your meals, snacks, and drinks—can help you match your activity level and medicines to the food you eat. Many people with diabetes count carbs to make managing blood sugar easier, which can also help them:

  • Stay healthy longer.
  • Feel better and improve their quality of life.
  • Prevent or delay diabetes complications such as kidney disease, eye disease, heart disease, and stroke.

If you take mealtime insulin, you’ll count carbs to match your insulin dose to the amount of carbs in your foods and drinks. You may also take additional insulin if your blood sugar is higher than your target when eating.

Added Sugar Is Hiding in Your Food

Salad dressing, yogurt, bread, spaghetti sauce. Sugars are added to many foods during processing, and added sugars mean added carbs. To spot them, check the ingredients list for words ending in “ose” (such as fructose or maltose) and any name that includes “syrup” or “juice.”

What are the different types of carbs?

There are 3 types of carbs:

  1. Sugars, such as the natural sugar in fruit and milk or the added sugar in soda and many other packaged foods.
  2. Starches, including wheat, oats, and other grains; starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes; and dried beans, lentils, and peas.
  3. Fiber, the part of plant foods that isn’t digested but helps you stay healthy.

Sugars and starches raise your blood sugar, but fiber doesn’t.

How are carbs measured?

Carbs are measured in grams. On packaged foods, you can find total carb grams on the Nutrition Facts label. You can also check this list or use a carb-counting app to find grams of carbs in foods and drinks.

For diabetes meal planning, 1 carb serving is about 15 grams of carbs. This isn’t always the same as what you think of as a serving of food. For example, most people would count a small baked potato as 1 serving. However, at about 30 grams of carbs, it counts as 2 carb servings.

How many carbs should I eat?

There’s no “one size fits all” answer—everyone is different because everyone’s body is different. The amount you can eat and stay in your target blood sugar range depends on your age, weight, activity level, and other factors.

On average, people with diabetes should aim to get about half of their calories from carbs. That means if you normally eat about 1,800 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, about 800 to 900 calories can come from carbs. At 4 calories per gram, that’s 200–225 carb grams a day. Try to eat about the same amount of carbs at each meal to keep your blood sugar levels steady throughout the day (not necessary if you use an insulin pump or give yourself multiple daily injections—you’ll take a fast-acting or short-acting insulin at mealtimes to match the amount of carbs you eat).

This sample menu has about 1,800 calories and 200 grams of carbs:

Breakfast

½ cup rolled oats (28g)
1 cup low-fat milk (13g)
2/3 medium banana (20g)
¼ cup chopped walnuts (4g)
Total carbs: 65 grams

Lunch

2 slices whole wheat bread (24g)
4 oz. low-sodium turkey meat (1g)
1 slice low-fat Swiss cheese (1g)
½ large tomato (3g)
1 TBS yellow mustard (1g)
¼ cup shredded lettuce (0g)
8 baby carrots (7g)
6 oz. plain fat-free Greek yogurt (7g)
¾ cup blueberries (15g)
Total carbs: 59 grams

Dinner
6 ounces baked chicken breast (0g)
1 cup brown rice (45g)
1 cup steamed broccoli (12g)
2 TBS margarine (0g)
Total carbs: 57 grams

Snack
1 low-fat string cheese stick (1g)
2 tangerines (18g)
Total carbs: 19 grams

How can I find out more about carb counting?

Talk with your dietitian about the right amount of carbs for you, and be sure to update your meal plan if your needs change (for example, if you get more active, you may increase how many carbs you eat). Ask about tasty, healthy recipes that can help you stay on top of your carb intake—which will make it easier to manage your blood sugar levels, too.

Page last reviewed: August 10, 2021