Counting carbohydrates is a flexible yet effective method for planning your meals by pinpointing foods that can raise blood sugar the most. Follow these steps to count carbohydrates and help manage your blood sugar levels.
Breaking down carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are nutrients found in many foods, including grains and starches, fruits, some vegetables, legumes, milk and milk alternatives, sugary foods and many prepared foods. They’re the body’s main source of energy. Carbohydrates can be grouped into “simple carbs” (sugars) and “complex carbs” (starches and fibres).
Broken down quickly by the body, causing a faster rise in blood sugar levels.
Contain more fibre, are digested more slowly and don’t raise blood sugar levels as much – keeping you full for longer and your blood sugar more stable.
Unlike sugars and starches, fibres aren’t broken down by the body. This means they do not raise blood sugar levels, making them an important part of a healthy diet that:
- Slows digestion
- Balances blood sugar levels
- Promotes “regularity” of bowel movements
Carbohydrates and type 2 diabetes
In type 2 diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin or does not properly use the insulin it makes. As a result, glucose can’t enter cells and stays in the bloodstream, making blood sugar levels rise. Over time, high blood sugar levels can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease and stroke.
Carbohydrate counting involves tracking the carbs you consume and sticking to a carbohydrate goal that’s been set for you – by a healthcare professional – to help manage your blood sugar levels and maintain your heart health.
Carb counting in 5 simple steps
#1: Talk to a Registered Dietitian (RD)
An RD can provide you with meal-planning tips and help you set your carbohydrate goal for each meal and snack. If you’ve never met with an RD, ask your doctor for a referral.
General carb goals for most adults:
45 to 60 grams/meal
15 to 20 grams/snack
Your carb goal may be based on your weight, activity level, medication regimen and blood sugar targets.
Stay within 5 grams of your carbohydrate goal per meal or snack.
#2: Know which foods contain carbs and which don’t
Foods that contain carbs include:
- Grains: bread, noodles, pasta, crackers, cereals and rice
- Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, melons and oranges
- Dairy products: milk and yogurt
- Legumes: dried beans, lentils and peas
- Vegetables: especially “starchy” vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas
“Starchy” vegetables are high in starch and have more carbohydrates per serving than non-starchy vegetables.
Non-starchy vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, green beans, lettuce and other salad greens, peppers, spinach, tomatoes and zucchini.
Foods that do not contain carbohydrates include:
- Meat, fish and poultry
- Most types of cheese
- Oils and other fats
TIP: While carbs can affect blood sugar, that doesn’t mean you should avoid carbs entirely. The type and amount of carb is what matters. Low-glycemic index foods can help control blood sugar, protect you from heart disease and stroke, and can make you feel full longer. Include more of these in your diet.
#3: Learn to estimate carbs
Become familiar with how many carbohydrates are in foods you typically eat. The following amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods each contain about 15 grams of carbohydrates:
- 1 slice of bread
- 1 6-inch tortilla
- 1/3 cup of pasta
- 1/3 cup of rice
- ½ cup of canned or fresh fruit, fruit juice or 1 small piece of fresh fruit, such as a small apple or orange
- ½ cup of pinto beans
- ½ cup of starchy vegetables, such as mashed potatoes, cooked corn, peas or lima beans
- ¾ cup of dry cereal or ½ cup cooked cereal
Some foods are so low in carbohydrates that you may not have to count them unless you eat large amounts. For example, the following amounts of non-starchy vegetables contain only about 5 grams of carbohydrate:
- ½ cup cooked non-starchy vegetables
- 1 cup of raw non-starchy vegetables
As you become familiar with which foods contain carbohydrates and how many grams of carbohydrate are in foods you eat, carbohydrate counting will be easier
TIP: The amount of carbs in processed food is listed on the nutrition facts table.
- The amount of carbs listed is for the serving size given. Are you eating more, less or the same amount? Compare your serving size to figure out the amount of carbs you are eating.
- The total amount of carbs in grams is listed first. This number includes starch, sugars and fibre (starch is not listed separately).
- Fibre does not raise blood sugar and should be subtracted from the total carbs (i.e., 26 g carbohydrate – 7 g fibre = 19 g available carbs)
Refer to the section on nutrition labels and see where you can find serving size info within a nutrition facts table
#4: Log your meals and snacks
- Get a notebook or download an app to help you record the foods and drinks you consume throughout the day
- Include your serving size, using nutrition labels, restaurant fact sheets, government websites, measuring cups/spoons and kitchen scales to help estimate the number of servings consumed
- Record the grams of carbohydrate in these foods and drinks
TIP: Carbs come from a variety of sources, including fruit and dairy – be mindful that these foods also count towards your carb goal.
#5: Count your carbohydrates
Remember to subtract the grams of fibre from the total grams of carbohydrate, adjusting for serving size whenever necessary.
TIP: Check out the Handy Guide to Portion Sizes for portion control at your fingertips!