When it comes to successfully managing diabetes, controlling your carbohydrate intake is crucial. Studies have 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.

Your body needs nutrients to function properly. The nutrients it requires in large quantities are called macronutrients, and the nutrients it requires in small quantities are called micronutrients.

There are three types of macronutrients: carbs, proteins, and fats. Carbs give you energy and fuel your brain. Protein keeps your tissues and cells healthy. Fat protects your vital organs and also provides energy.

Carbs, by far, have the greatest impact on BG. Carb counting is a way to make sure your body is getting enough carbs to fuel your daily activities without making your BG climb into an unhealthy range.

When carb counting first came on the diabetes scene, it was primarily used by people who take 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 percentage of total calories each day.

The process can seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, carb counting can 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 leafy greens, 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 those 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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that adults consume a minimum of 28 grams of fiber daily. But according to Harvard Medical School, most adults in the United States get less than half that amount.

Set your target

The first question most people ask is, “How many carbs should I eat each day?” Unfortunately, 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?

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 charts in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to get an estimate.

Once you know your calorie target, you can figure out your carb target. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says everyone’s needs are different, but that people with diabetes should aim to get about 45 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, on average.

Many people with diabetes target less than 45 percent, some even as low as 5 to 10 percent. Ask your doctor or diabetes care and education specialist about what they recommend for you.

Let’s say you’ve determined your daily targets are 1,600 calories with 35 percent 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 to 18 grams each).

In general, the CDC recommends three to four carb servings per meal for women, and four to five servings per meal for men. However, these amounts depend on your age, weight, level of physical activity, and current medications.

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.

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 Department of Agriculture 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.

Take your BG before the meal and 2 hours afterward. If your BG goes up, the particular carbs you chose or the portion size 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.

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 that contain lots of carbs but few nutrients

Foods in this category would include those made with white sugar or white flour (cookies, cakes, pies, bread, pasta, etc.), white potatoes, and white rice.

Skip the sweets entirely — substitute fresh fruit instead — and eat foods like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower rice as substitutes.

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.

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

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


Shelby Kinnaird hosts Cook and Chat with Shelby, a fun online cooking experience focusing on healthy recipes and lots of conversation. She is the author of “The Pocket Carbohydrate Guide for Diabetes,” co-author of “The Diabetes Cookbook for Electric Pressure Cookers,” and founder of the website Diabetic Foodie. Shelby is a passionate diabetes advocate and she leads two DiabetesSisters peer support groups in Richmond, Virginia. She has successfully managed her type 2 diabetes since 1999.