Diabetic? Here’s How to Count Your Carbohydrates

If you have diabetes, that doesn't mean you can't have carbs! Understanding the basics of carbohydrate counting gives you the freedom to enjoy a meal and build a diabetes-friendly plate.

In order to learn how to count carbohydrates, it’s important to understand what they are. Carbohydrates, at their root, are glucose or fructose (read: sugar) molecules which directly affect your blood glucose levels. Foods that are highest in carbohydrates are milk, yogurt, fruits, beans, starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, winter squash) and grains. Foods that rank lowest in carbohydrates are meats, fats and non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, carrots, beets, spinach and tomatoes). As a person with diabetes, knowing which foods have carbohydrates is just the start. You don’t have to make every meal low-carb, though these dinner recipes are a tasty place to start, but it’s important to understand how many carbs are in each food at each meal.

Carb Counting for Diabetics

Nutrition labels come in handy for counting carbohydrates, because you can find the serving size and amount of carbohydrates per serving to know exactly what you are eating. But, what about foods that don’t come with a label or when you are eating out? This is where a basic understanding of carbohydrates counting can come in handy:

Each item has approximately 15 grams of carbohydrates

  • 1 small slice of bread
  • 1/3 cup cooked pasta
  • 1/3 cup cooked rice
  • 1 tortilla (6 inches)
  • 1/3 cup cooked beans
  • 1/2 cup starchy vegetables
  • 1 small piece of fruit
  • 1/2 medium banana
  • 3/4 cup berries
  • 1/2 cup 100% fruit juice

Dairy foods add up differently, as they have 12 grams of carbs per cup of milk. Plain yogurt is the same, about 12 grams of carbohydrates per cup.

Non-starchy vegetables do have carbohydrates, adding up to 5 grams of carbohydrates for 1/2-cup cooked or a cup raw.

Here’s a more comprehensive list of carbohydrates in foods.

Recommended Daily Carb Intake

How many carbs people need each day and at each meal depends on a lot of factors and should be discussed with their dietitian or physician. A person trying to control their blood glucose (also referred to as blood sugar) will need to monitor their carbohydrates for each meal. As a general guide, 35-60 grams of carbs per meal and 15-20 grams per snack. This totals up to around 135-220 grams per day. A person with normal blood glucose control can have a carb-dense meal (like a birthday party with pizza, cake and ice cream) and their body’s insulin will respond and take the glucose into their cells. A person with impaired blood glucose control (like a person with diabetes or pre-diabetes) struggles to take glucose into the cells, so they typically need to eat carbs in smaller amounts throughout the day. It’s also important for the timing and amount of carbohydrates to correspond with any diabetes medication they are taking. To fully understand this impairment, speak with your physician and consider taking a class led by a Certified Diabetes Educator. Here’s a bit more information about diabetes.

Balancing a Diabetic-Friendly Plate with the Exchange List

The Exchange List was created to simplify carbohydrate counting and help people round out meal planning with optimum nutrition in mind. For example, a dietitian may prescribe a meal that breaks down like this:

  • 2 vegetables (10 grams of carbs)
  • 1 lean protein (0 grams of carbs)
  • 1 starch (15 grams of carbohydrates)
  • 1 dairy or 1 starch (12 – 15 grams of carbs)
  • 1 fat (0 grams of carbs)

Here’s a meal idea that fits the above plan:

  • 1 cup cooked broccoli (10 grams of carbs)
  • 3 ounces cooked salmon (0 grams of carbs)
  • 1/3 cup cooked rice (15 grams of carbs)
  • 1 cup low-fat milk (12 grams of carbs)
  • 1/5 of an avocado (0 grams of carbs)
  • Total: 37 grams of carbohydrates

A snack could look like this:

  • 1 fruit (15 grams of carbs)
  • 1 lean protein (0 grams of carbs)
  • 1 apple with 2 tablespoons peanut butter
  • Total: 15 grams of carbohydrates

Choosing Quality Over Quantity

It’s important to look at other info on nutrition labels besides carbs. Think about desserts. While desserts count toward your daily carbohydrate intake, they aren’t very nutrient-dense like a whole grain, piece of fruit or serving of low-fat dairy. It’s a balancing game, but it’s not meant to feel overly restrictive. Being too strict can lead to unhealthy behaviors, like binge eating, so it’s important to find balance instead. In this instance, it’s good to have a few diabetic-friendly recipes to satisfy your cravings on hand, like these chocolate recipes.

If you’re craving some culinary creativity Taste of Home has you covered with a wide variety of diabetic-friendly meals, from breakfast recipes to dinner to sweet treats. Remember to look at the nutrition information listed on the bottom of the recipes and monitor the serving sizes to stay within your recommended counts. But know this, you can enjoy carbohydrates as a diabetic, you just need to understand how to balance out the plate!

Truthfully, a diabetic diet is just a nutritious meal plan that reduces carbs while increasing the amount of produce and protein. Rounding out a plate with fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and lean proteins is a beneficial eating pattern for most people. It can be hard to change your eating patterns overnight, but be patient with yourself and consider taking a class to fully comprehend the benefits of carbohydrate counting.

Start meal planning right now!

Try these delicious diabetic dinner recipes.
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Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN
As a registered dietitian Wendy Jo touches on the science and facts behind food, but as a gardener and world traveler she savors the classical dishes our great-grandmothers once made. When she’s not in her kitchen, you can find her and her family exploring the US in their campervan, Olaf!