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Carbohydrate counting (or carb counting) is simply adding up the total grams of carb in your meals and snacks. Aiming for a consistent carb intake throughout the day can help stabilize your blood sugars. A more advanced form of carb counting involves matching your mealtime insulin dose to the grams of carb you eat. This is called an insulin-to-carb ratio, which is only for those on multiple daily injections of insulin or an insulin pump.1 If you are interested in learning more about an insulin-to-carb ratio, ask your doctor, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN/RD), or Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES).
Carbohydrates (or carbs) are nutrients that break down into glucose when digested—your body uses glucose for energy. In fact, carbs are the body’s main source of energy! The common forms of carb are starches, sugars, and fiber.
Beans & lentils
Bread, rolls/buns, & tortillas
Chips, pretzels, & popcorn
Pancakes & waffles
Pasta, rice, & quinoa
Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, & corn
Apples & apple juice
Cantaloupe, honeydew melon, & watermelon
Cranberries & cranberry juice
Grapes & grape juice
Oranges & orange juice
Peaches & nectarines
Fat free or lowfat milk
(In small quantities, nonstarchy vegetables have a minimal impact on blood sugar.)
Greens, lettuce, & spinach
Because glucose circulates in your bloodstream, it is called blood glucose (or “blood sugar”). In people with diabetes, blood sugar levels are harder to control after eating carbs because of a lack of insulin and/or insulin resistance.2 This is where carb counting can help! One way to count carbs is by reading nutrition facts labels. When reading a nutrition facts label, pay attention to the following:
Added sugars are considered “empty calories” because they provide your body with calories but have little to no nutritional value.3 The top source of added sugars in the American diet is sugar-sweetened beverages, followed by desserts.4 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day. A great way to reduce added sugars in the diet is by replacing them with low- and no-calorie sweeteners like Splenda.
If your food or drink does not have a nutrition facts label available, there are many other tools to find this information, such as nutrition apps, websites, and books. For recommendations, ask your registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN/RD) or Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES).
There is no magic number of carbohydrates that a person with diabetes should eat. Individualized meal plans are best because we are all individuals. Work with you registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN/RD) or Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES) to create a meal plan determined by your age, body size, activity level, and preferences. This plan will help you understand how many carbohydrates to aim for per meal and snack.
1 Hornick, B., & Uelmen, S. (Eds.). (2019). Choose your foods: Match your insulin to your carbs. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Diabetes Association, Inc. 2 American Diabetes Association. (n.d.). Carb counting and diabetes. https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs/carb-counting-and-diabetes 3 Duyff, R. L. (2017). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics complete food and nutrition guide (5th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 4 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 (9th ed.). USDA, HHS.