Basic Carbohydrate Counting
Carbohydrates (car-bow-HIGH-drates) are nutrients in food that turn into glucose (sugar) after being digested to provide energy to the body. People with diabetes should have a moderate amount of carbohydrate at each meal, rather than avoiding them completely. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate at each meal will help to keep blood glucose in a healthy range.
Below are some basic guidelines for counting and regulating the amount of carbohydrate in the diet. In general, these foods contain carbohydrates:
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, dried beans, corn, and peas
- Fruits: fresh, frozen, canned and juice
- All breads, cereals, pasta, rice and crackers
- Milk and yogurt
- Desserts and sweets
- Most snack foods
Carbohydrates (carbs) are often counted in "servings" or "choices". One carb choice contains about 15 grams of total carbohydrate. The portions in the table below are equal to one carb choice. In general, women should have 3 to 4 carb choices at each meal and men should have 4 to 5 carb choices at each meal. Both can have 1 to 2 carb choices as an evening snack.
Food Choices Equaling One Carbohydrate Choice (15 Grams of Total Carbs)
- Apple or orange the size of a tennis ball
- 1 cup (8 ounces) skim milk
- 1/3 cup pasta or rice (cooked), or baked beans
- 1 cup (8 ounces) soy milk
- 1/2 cup regular, light, or no-sugar-added ice cream
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cereal or 1/2 cup cooked cereal
- 1/2 cup sugar-free pudding
- 1/2 cup corn, peas or mashed potatoes
- 1 small or 1/2 medium banana
- 1/4 large or 1 small (3 ounces) baked potato
- 1/2 cup orange or apple juice
- 1/3 cup grape, cranberry or prune juice
Meat and Meat Substitutes (Protein)
Meat and meat substitutes do not raise your blood glucose. If eaten in excess, they can keep the blood glucose elevated for a longer period of time. Also, meats high in fat can raise cholesterol levels and cause weight gain. It is important to make healthy food choices, so choose lean meats such as:
- Skinless chicken
- Skinless turkey
- Reduced-fat peanut butter
- Low-fat cheese or cottage cheese
- Pork loin
Limit high-fat protein sources, including highly marbled beef, regular cheese, hot dogs, and processed lunchmeats (such as bologna and salami). Rather than frying, prepare foods by baking, broiling, grilling, or steaming.
Fat does not raise your blood glucose, but like protein, can keep the blood glucose elevated if eaten in excess. Fat can contribute to heart disease and weight gain. It is important that you limit the amount of fat you eat and choose healthy fats most often.
- Use less regular salad dressing, mayonnaise, cream cheese, sour cream, gravy and nuts.
- Choose reduced-fat products and limit the size of your portions.
- Olive and canola oils are healthier fats for your heart. Once again, limit your portions.
Sodium (SO-dee-um) is a mineral found in many foods and medicines. It is most commomly known as salt. In the body, sodium helps to regulate blood pressure and body fluids. Most Americans consume more than 5,000 mg (milligrams) of sodium daily. A healthy diet for people with diabetes would be to limit sodium to less than 1,500 mg daily. To reduce sodium in the diet:
- Do not use salt at the table or in cooking
- Avoid canned, processed and pre-packaged foods
- Avoid fast foods
Free Foods You May Enjoy
You can eat unlimited amounts of food and drinks that have zero carbohydrate and zero calories. These include water, diet drinks, and sugar-free gelatin.
Non-starchy vegetables contain small amounts of carbohydrate. Try to eat at least 2 to 3 servings (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw) with each meal. These foods are good for you because they are high in fiber and low in calories and carbohydrate:
- Bean sprouts
- Beans (green, wax, Italian)
- Salad greens (endive, lettuce, romaine, spinach)
You may eat food and drinks that have 5 grams or less of total carbohydrate per serving. You should limit yourself to 2 to 3 servings throughout the day. (For information, read the section in this page called, “Understanding food labels.”)
Sugar-free sweets are NOT free foods; they still may contain carbohydrates. Be careful not to eat too much sugar-free candy. For example, if 1 piece of sugar-free hard candy contains 5 grams of total carbohydrate and you eat 3 pieces at a time, you ate 15 grams of total carbohydrate.
Eat Regular Meals
People with diabetes should eat the same moderate amount of total carbohydrate at about the same time every day. In other words, eat the same number of carbohydrate choices at each meal. Follow a schedule and space meals about 4 to 5 hours apart.
Low Carbohydrate Products
Labels on many supermarket foods read “low carbohydrate” (low carb). Before you buy a low-carbohydrate food, be sure to look at the nutrition label.
Some low-carbohydrate products may have higher amounts of other items such as calories, fat and soduim than the regular products. If so, they may not be good choices for your meal plan. Remember, there are no government guidelines for low-carbohydrate and net-carbohydrate products.
In addition, sugar alcohols are often found in low-carbohydrate foods. They can affect blood glucose. They also may have a laxative effect and cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some individuals.
Understanding Food Labels
In general, 1 carbohydrate choice equals about 15 grams of total carbohydrate per serving.
- 1 slice bread = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
- 1 small apple = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
- 1 cup milk = 12 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
Review this sample nutrition label to help you understand more about counting carbohydrates.
Start with serving size. How many servings will you eat? The nutrients listed are based on 1 serving of food. Note the number of servings in the package.
The total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat content are important. Try to keep these low.
Look at the total carbohydrate number. This shows the amount of carbohydrate in 1 serving of this food. If you eat 2 servings, you must double the number of carbohydrate grams. Dietary fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols are indented under the total carbohydrate count because they are part of the total carbohydrate amount.
A diet high in fiber can help manage cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Look for food products with more than 5 grams of fiber.
Not all food products will be a perfect 15 grams of total carbohydrate. Use this conversion chart to translate your nutrition label. Be sure to check the serving size. Example: 5 large pretzels contain 26 grams of total carbohydrate, which equals 2 carbohydrate choices.
Sample Carbohydrate Counting Menu
- 1 cup oatmeal
- 1 cup skim milk
- 3/4 cup blueberries
- Oats = 27 grams total carbohydrate = 2 carb choices
- Milk = 12 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carb choice
- Berries = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carb choice
Total: 4 carbohydrate choices
- 1 small apple
- 6 ounces light yogurt
- 2 slices whole wheat bread
- 2 ounces lean turkey and 1 slice low-fat cheese
- Salad with greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, and 2 teaspoons of oil and vinegar
- Sugar-free gelatin
- Sugar-free lemonade
- Apple = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
- Yogurt = 20 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
- Bread = 30 grams total carbohydrate = 2 carbohydrate choices
Total: 4 carbohydrate choices
- 2/3 cup brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
- 1/2 cup light canned peaches with 2 tablespoons light nondairy whipped topping.
- 1 small whole wheat dinner roll
- 4 ounces lean chicken or fish
- 1 cup steamed broccoli and cauliflower
- Unsweetened, decaf iced tea
- Rice = 30 grams total carbohydrate = 2 carbohydrate choices
- Peaches = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
- Roll = 15 grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice
Total: 4 carbohydrate choices
- 3 cups low-fat/reduced-fat popcorn
- 15 grams total carbohydrates = 1 carbohydrate choice
Total: 1 carbohydrate choice
For more advanced levels of carbohydrate counting, talk with a registered dietitian. To find a dietitian in your area, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762), then select option 1.
Reviewed July 2013