Why Count Carbs?
After you eat food that contains carbohydrate, it breaks down into glucose and enters the bloodstream. This is why your blood glucose, or blood sugar, rises after eating most sources of carbohydrate.
"The purpose of basic carb counting is to more consistently control the amount of glucose going into the bloodstream to stabilize blood sugar levels," says Michelle Bravo, R.D, LDN, CDE, director of diabetes education at the Diabetes Center at Mercy in Baltimore. Carb counting ranges from basic to advanced. Everyone starts with basic carb counting, no matter how long they've had diabetes or what their ultimate carb counting goal is.
Basic Carb Counting
With basic carb counting, your goal is to eat similar amounts of carb at the same time each day. For example, if you eat 40 grams of carb for breakfast, you should eat that amount at breakfast every day. Keeping carbohydrate intake consistent helps keep blood sugar on track. This doesn't mean you have to eat the same thing at every meal every day. You can choose from many different foods that have similar amounts of carb.
Two Ways to Count
Carbohydrates can be counted two ways: by grams or by choices. However, it is important to note that carb choices are being phased out. If you work with a dietitian or diabetes educator, you can discuss the best and newest approach to counting carbs that works for you.
How Much Carbohydrate Should I Eat?
Everyone needs different amounts of carbohydrate, depending on factors such as height, weight, age, activity levels, medications, and weight loss goals. A general guideline is:
45 to 60 grams (3 to 4 choices) per meal for women
60 to 75 grams (4 to 5 choices) per meal for men
15 to 30 grams (1 to 2 choices) per snack
While these guidelines are helpful for determining the amount of carbohydrate to include in your meals, a dietitian or diabetes educator can make a plan specific to your needs that might include snack options.
Know the Nutrition Facts
The nutrition facts label on food packaging tells you all you need to know to count carbohydrates. Look at two things:
total carbohydrate (in grams)
Serving size is important because all of the values on the nutrition label are based on one serving, not the entire package. Multiply the number of servings you will eat by the total grams of carbohydrate, and you will know how much carbohydrate you're eating.
Don't worry about sugars on the food label. Sugars on the nutrition facts account for all of the added sugars as well as naturally occurring sugars from foods like fruit and milk.
The best way to evaluate your portions is to measure your food with measuring cups or a food scale. If the serving size is 1 cup, measure 1 cup to be sure that's how much you're eating. If the portion you plan to eat is more or less than the serving size on the label, then you will need to figure out how many grams of carbohydrate you will actually be consuming. It's a good idea to measure or weigh your food when you can until you get a good sense of serving sizes. Then periodically measure to be sure your carb counting is accurate.
For carb counting to be effective in blood sugar control, keep good glucose records and food diaries. After a while, you'll get a sense of how certain foods affect your blood sugar levels so you can anticipate and avoid highs and lows.
Knowledge is key. Carb counting teaches you how the foods you eat affect your blood sugar. It will help you minimize your risk of complications and feel more positive and confident about your choices.