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How to Count Carbs: A Beginner’s Guide to Carb Counting for Diabetes

Diet and Nutrition

Updated September 01, 2023

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by Shelby Kinnaird


Medically Reviewed by:

Imashi Fernando, MS, RDN, CDCES


by Shelby Kinnaird


Medically Reviewed by:

Imashi Fernando, MS, RDN, CDCES


In addition to staying active and following your treatment plan, carb counting may be a powerful tool for managing your diabetes.

When it comes to successfully managing diabetes, regulating your carbohydrate intake is crucial.

Research has shown that monitoring carb intake leads to better blood glucose (BG) numbers and may improve your health in other ways, too.

One technique for managing carbs is carb counting.

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What is carb counting?

At the most basic level, carb counting is keeping a running count of all the carbohydrates you have eaten during a certain time period.

After you’ve eaten, carbs break down into glucose. That’s why monitoring your intake can help you to manage your BG.

Carbs are measured in grams. You can find out how many carbs a food contains by checking the nutrition information or by using a list of items like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Carb counting is a way to make sure your body is getting enough carbs to fuel your daily activities while making sure your BG remains within target.

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Who can benefit?

When carb counting first came on the diabetes scene, it was primarily used by people who took mealtime insulin as a way to determine their dosage.

Now, it can be used by anyone who is trying to limit the number of carbs they eat to a certain number of grams or a percentage of total calories each day.

How to get started counting carbs

Carb counting can seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, it may really help you manage your health.

Here’s what to keep in mind when getting started:

Recognize carbs and where they hide

The first step in carb counting is to recognize carbs in the foods you eat. You probably know they’re in bread, pasta, and cake, but did you know they’re also in most veggies, yogurt, and beans?

Carbohydrates hide in sneaky places like pasta sauce, salad dressing, and protein bars, too.

Educate yourself about what foods are primarily carbs, which are proteins, which are fats, and which are combination foods.

Choose quality carbs

When you eat carbs, pick ones that are loaded with nutrients and fiber. Avoid carbs that have empty calories.

Fiber slows down the rate at which glucose enters your bloodstream, so eating high fiber carbs will have less of an impact on your BG.

Examples of high fiber carbs include:

  • beans
  • lentils
  • fruit and vegetables
  • oats

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends anywhere from 22–34 grams of fiber daily based on age and sex. However, most adults in the United States do not get enough fiber.

Set your target

The first question most people ask is: “How many carbs should I eat each day?” The answer is, “It depends.”

  • Are you male or female?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you active or sedentary?
  • Are you trying to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight?
  • Have you spoken with a doctor about your dietary needs?

First, think about how many calories you need each day. You can use tools like the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ Body Weight Planner or the USDA MyPlate Plan to get an estimate.

Once you know your calorie target, you can figure out your carb target.

While the 2023 American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) Standards of Care doesn’t suggest a specific general target, they do encourage you to work with your doctor to determine a carb number based on your specific needs.

Carbs play an important role in a balanced diet. Very low carb diets may not be sustainable or appropriate for everyone.

Approach the day with a plan

Let’s say you’ve determined your daily target is 1,600 calories, with 35% of those calories coming from carbs — about 560. Since each carb contains 4 calories, you’ll be setting your carb intake at 140 grams per day (35 grams per meal plus two snacks of 17–18 grams each).

A carb serving is measured as 15 grams. Remember, a serving of carbs is not the same as a serving of food.

A general rule of thumb is to aim for:

  • 3–4 carb servings per meal for women
  • 4–5 carb servings per meal for men
  • 1–2 carb servings per snack

However, these amounts depend on your age, weight, level of physical activity, individual health goals, BG targets, and current medications.

Spreading your carb intake out over all your meals and snacks instead of eating many or most of them at the same meal will help to keep your BG level.

Where to find carb counts

For foods that have nutrition labels, determining carb counts is easy. Just look on the label for “total carbohydrates.” Also, note the number of grams of fiber.

Some people subtract the fiber grams from the carb grams and use “net carbs” as their total. This is because fiber isn’t digested into energy or calories in the same way as carbs. But the ADA recommends using total carbs for carb counting rather than net carbs.

For foods that don’t have a label, like fresh fruit, there are many places to find carb counts. Some reliable options include apps like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt! and the USDA’s FoodData Central database.

Restaurant chains with more than 20 locations will generally have nutritional information (including carb counts) for their menu items available upon request.

Serving size vs. portion size

Now, let’s talk about serving size versus portion size.

A serving size is the portion of food for which the nutrition information has been calculated. So, a label for black beans might show a serving size of 1/2 cup and a carb count of 21 grams.

If the amount you actually eat — your portion size — is 1 cup of black beans, you’ll need to double the carb count.

Pay close attention to serving size when counting carbs. If you’re not somewhere you can easily measure, know that the size of your fist is about 1 cup, and a handful is about 1/2 cup.

Test, track, and tweak

Keeping good records is the key to accurate carb counting. After you’ve figured out the daily carb total you want to target, calculate the number of carbs you eat at each meal.

Check your BG before the meal and 2 hours afterward. If your BG goes higher than 180 mg/dL 2 hours after a meal, the particular carbs you chose, the portion size, or the meal composition may not have been right for you.

If your BG stays steady or goes down, pat yourself on the back! Make a note of that meal and add it to your regular rotation. Soon, you’ll have a list of meals that you know work, and you won’t have to be so meticulous about counting.

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Avoiding the math

If the math and record-keeping scare you, there are other ways to manage your carb intake.

Use the plate method

For the plate method, divide your plate in half and then divide one half in half. You’ll end up with one large section and two smaller sections.

Fill the large section with non-starchy vegetables like salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and cauliflower.

Fill one of the smaller sections with lean protein like chicken breast, fish, or edamame. Note that most plant-based proteins also contain carbs.

Fill the other smaller section with starchy foods like brown rice, butternut squash, or sweet potato. Remember to pick foods that have lots of fiber.

Avoid sweet and starchy foods and sugary drinks

Foods in this category can contain a lot of carbs but few nutrients. These would include those made with white sugar or white flour (cookies, cakes, pies, bread, pasta, etc.), white potatoes, and white rice.

You can always skip the sweets entirely — substitute fresh fruit instead — and eat foods like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower rice as substitutes. If you do opt to eat these foods, keep moderation in mind.

It’s also a good idea to limit beverages with added sugars, like many fruit juices and flavored coffee drinks. If you do drink these, they need to be included in the carb count.

Eat a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal

Different colored foods contain different types of nutrients, so you want a wide variety. For example:

  • green foods are good sources of potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and folate
  • orange and yellow foods are high in beta-carotene
  • red foods contain lycopene
  • purple foods feature flavonoids

When you eat carbs, aim to get your biggest nutritional bang for the buck.

The takeaway

Successfully managing your diabetes means keeping your carb intake in check. Come up with a daily target, count your carbs, and then see if that target works for you.

Don’t be afraid to tweak until you get it right!

Originally written July 28, 2020

Medically reviewed on September 01, 2023

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About the author

Shelby Kinnaird

Shelby Kinnaird, author ofThe Diabetes Cookbook for Electric Pressure Cookers” andThe Pocket Carbohydrate Counter Guide for Diabetes,” publishes recipes and tips for people who want to eat healthy at Diabetic Foodie, a website often stamped with a “top diabetes blog” label. Shelby is a passionate diabetes advocate who likes to make her voice heard in Washington, D.C., and she leads two DiabetesSisters support groups in Richmond, Virginia. She has successfully managed her type 2 diabetes since 1999.

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