Carb Counting

By Annette Demeny

What is carbohydrate counting?


Carbohydrates, or carbs, are one of the three main energy sources in food. The other two are protein and fat. They’re also called Macronutrients. As you learned in last week’s post, National Diabetes Month, when you eat a food containing carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks down the carbs into sugar, which then enters into the bloodstream. As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that prompts cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage. Knowing this, balancing the amount of carbs you eat determines how much your blood glucose (sugar) levels rise after you eat.

If you take insulin shots, counting carbs can help you determine how much insulin to take. But for this post, we will mainly be looking at counting carbs as one of the meal planning options for Type 2 diabetics.


Which foods have carbohydrates?


Foods high in carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. However, carbohydrate quality is important. Some types of carbohydrate-rich foods are better than others:

  • The healthiest sources of carbohydrates ~ unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans—promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a ton of important phytonutrients. These are called Complex Carbs.
  • Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates ~ white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods.  These items contain easily digested carbohydrates that may contribute to weight gain and promote diabetes and heart disease. These are called Simple Carbs.

How many grams of carbohydrates are best for me?


The recommended number of servings is based on each individual person ~ weight, activity level, and goals for blood glucose levels. To help determine your goals, talk to a dietitian or diabetes educator to personalize a plan that’s best for you.

Below is a general guideline:

For most women: 

  • 45 – 60 grams of carbohydrates at each meal
  • 15 – 25 grams of carbohydrates at each snack

For most men:

  • 60 – 75 grams of carbohydrates at each meal
  • 15 – 30 grams of carbohydrates at each snack


How to determine serving sizes and grams when reading food labels?


There are three (3) main types of carbohydrates in the foods you eat and all three will be included on food labels under “total carbohydrate“: sugar (simple), starch (complex), and fiber.

To determine a serving size, check the food label for the number of carbohydrate grams (g).

One serving is equal to 15 grams of carbs

  • Example
    • Serving Size: 6 crackers
    • Total Carbohydrate: 15g
    • = One carbohydrate serving is 6 crackers
  • Example
    • Serving Size: 4 cookies
    • Total Carbohydrate: 30g
    • = One carbohydrate serving is 2 cookies
  • Example
    • Serving Size: 1 graham cracker square
    • Total Carbohydrate: 5g
    • = One carbohydrate serving is 3 graham cracker squares 

There’s so much more to cover in nutrition label reading (how much fat and what type of fat is best, how much sodium should you have, etc)! We will cover those important topics on a later post.


How do you count carbs when a particular food doesn’t have a food label? Like any new lifestyle change, you have to become knowledgeable in the different serving sizes, portion sizes, and carb content. After practicing for a while, it will soon become second nature to you. With countless fruits, vegetables, beans, milk products, and grain products out there, it’s best to have a cheat sheet to look at to help you become familiar with the different foods. You can also download apps on your mobile phone that make it easy to lookup thousands of different foods, as well as, the capability to find nutritional information for countless restaurants and fast food chains. My favorite app is My Fitness Pal. Try it out!

It’s important to note that eating healthy food is key but also eating the right amount of food matters, too.

For example, a small 3-ounce apple (the size of a small fist) has about 15 grams of carbs. A large apple has about 30 grams of carbs. That’s a big difference so notice the portion size when meal planning. Some of our favorite foods have changed in size over time. For instance, a bagel 20 years ago was about 3 inches in diameter. Today, they are typically 6 inches in diameter!


What if I am eating out? How do I count carbs?


One other easy option to meal planning is called the plate method. The plate method is a simple way to manage portion sizes and eat balanced meals. Start with a 9-inch plate and imagine you have to split the plate in half. Then divide one of the halves into two sections. The side with the half, choose non-starchy vegetables (salad, broccoli, steamed veggies), 1/4 side of the plate, choose a lean protein (approx 4 oz. chicken, fish, beans), and the final 1/4 side of the plate, choose grains and starchy foods (rice, pasta, potatoes, bread). This is an easy method to use at home or while eating out.


There’s so much more to learn but my goal is to provide easy and fairly short content on each topic. Remember, our bodies and how they process certain foods are all very different. Be sure to talk to your doctor or dietitian FIRST to make a PLAN for your individual GOALS. The information provided in this month’s series should be used in conjunction with your individual diabetes goals.

Previous posts that could be beneficial…


SFY Sources

University of Michigan School of Medicine

American Diabetes Association


SFY Recommends



What meal planning method do you like best?



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