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Back to Basics: Carb Counting

USDA MyPlate

Back to Basics: Carbohydrate Counting

By now, you probably know that carbohydrates are a nutrient in food that affects your blood sugar. Eat too many, and your blood sugar may get too high. If you don’t eat enough carbohydrate, your blood sugar may be too low. So what’s a person to do? Count your carbohydrates and be your own detective!

Carbohydrate counting is an easy way to plan meals and better manage your blood sugar. With practice, you will be able to swiftly figure out how much carbohydrate is in a food and more importantly, a whole meal or snack. For diabetics, carbohydrate counting can help you and your doctor decide how much insulin you need at mealtime. Carbohydrate counting will help you know how foods affect your blood sugar.

The goal of carbohydrate counting is to ensure that you get the right amount of carbohydrates for your body. Your doctor, a registered dietitian, or certified diabetes educator (CDE) should tell you how many grams of carbohydrate you need at each meal and snack. According to the American Diabetes Association, most people need somewhere between 45-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15 to 30 grams per snack.

To carbohydrate count, you will need your personalized goal for how many grams of carbohydrate you should have per meal or snack. You will also need to know what foods have carbohydrates and how much in order to eat the right amount of food to meet your needs. Once you know your carbohydrate goal for each meal or snack, count the carbohydrates in the food you eat. Or better yet, before you eat!

One carbohydrate serving or choice is 15 grams. You may have heard this referred to as a carbohydrate “exchange.” The listing below provides a quick reference to what 15 grams of carbohydrate looks like for common foods. You can also use the nutrition label when eating packaged foods. The best way to carbohydrate count is to meal plan. Remember, this is an instance where you want to hit the target without going over, so planning can help! If you plan your meals, you can be sure to eat the right foods to get the right amount of carbohydrates at each meal and snack. Planning the carbohydrate backbone of your meals lets you fill in the rest of the plan with other healthy foods you need to fuel your body. This includes lots of non-starchy vegetables like lettuce, mushrooms, and tomatoes. In addition, adding protein and fat sources like lean chicken and eggs as well as healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, and olive oil for cooking can help build tasty recipes and meals that keep you full and your blood sugar stable.

If you feel like carb counting is restrictive or difficult, try to remember that it takes a little practice and over time it will get easier. Practice measuring out foods you like to eat. This will help you become a faster counter and have a better of idea of how much you are eating when you go out to eat. More importantly, remember that you can eat carbohydrates. Choosing whole grains, beans, low fat dairy, and healthy starchy vegetables will help you get the most nutrients out of your choices.

Alison C. Berg, PhD, RDN, LD, Assistant Professor and Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist and Jenissa Gordon, BSFCS, Graduate Student, Dietetic Intern.

Foods and Amounts for 15 g Carbohydrate: Fresh Fruits 4 oz. or about one small piece, or ½ cup; Grains like oatmeal, cooked ½ cup, cooked; Rice and barley, cooked 1/3 cup, cooked; Pastas, cooked 1/3 cup, cooked; Casseroles ½ cup; Breads or Tortillas 1 medium slice or 1 (6 inch) tortilla; Milk 8 ounces or ½ cup; Beans ½ cup, cooked; Starchy Vegetables ½ cup; Soup 1 cup; Fat-free yogurts 2/3 cup; Jellies and Jam 1 Tablespoon; Popcorn, oil popped 3 cups, popped; Cookies 2 small; French Fries ¼ medium fry