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How Many Carbs Should You Eat a Day?

What are carbs? What foods have carbs? How many carbs should you eat? Before you settle on a number or stop eating carbs altogether, educate yourself about the different types of carbs and how they fit into the diabetes management picture—then zero in on the right carb count for you.
Insulin and Blood Sugar

What's the Connection Between Carbs, Insulin, and Blood Sugar?

If carbohydrate from any food (whether a healthy food source or not) raises blood sugar, then it seems logical to restrict carb intake. However, research shows it’s not that simple. The biggest key to controlling blood sugar levels, particularly after eating, is having sufficient insulin at the ready—whether that’s insulin you make in your pancreas or insulin you take as a medication. If you have available insulin, then you’ll be able to make use of the glucose from the carbohydrate and control after-meal blood glucose levels.

What Foods Contain Carbs?

The calories in these foods and food groups are mainly from carbohydrate. Some contain varying amounts of protein and fat.  

• Starches: bread, cereal, pasta, whole grains
• Starchy vegetables: potatoes, corn, legumes
• Fruit and fruit juice
• Nonstarchy vegetables: green beans, tomatoes, lettuce
• Milk, yogurt
• Sugary foods: regular soda, gumdrops
• Sweets: ice cream, chocolate candy

What's the Connection Between Carbs, Insulin, and Blood Sugar?

If carbohydrate from any food (whether a healthy food source or not) raises blood sugar, then it seems logical to restrict carb intake. However, research shows it’s not that simple. The biggest key to controlling blood sugar levels, particularly after eating, is having sufficient insulin at the ready—whether that’s insulin you make in your pancreas or insulin you take as a medication. If you have available insulin, then you’ll be able to make use of the glucose from the carbohydrate and control after-meal blood glucose levels.

Why Should I Eat Foods that Have Carbs?

Some foods that contain carbs provide essential calories (energy), vitamins, and minerals important for good health, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. Other than low-fat dairy foods, these foods are your main sources of dietary fiber. If you don’t eat enough carbs, studies show you’ll likely eat more fat, which could be unhealthy saturated fat. Remember, calories only come from three nutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. 

What's All the Buzz About Low-Carb Diets and Diabetes?

There’s an ongoing debate about the value and necessity of restricting carbohydrate consumption if you have diabetes. This debate is fueled by websites, books, and other sources of information that often overpromise weight loss or reversal of diabetes. However, well-conducted research studies over one to two years haven’t demonstrated that low-carb eating plans are better than eating plans with moderate or higher carbs. This is true whether a person has prediabetes or type 2 diabetes and wants to lose weight and/or to achieve control of blood sugar and cholesterol. 

Research does show that if you want to lose weight to hit your blood glucose targets and control or slow progression of your prediabetes or type 2, you’ll need to eat fewer total calories. The emphasis should be on total calories consumed versus eating more or fewer carbs, protein, or fat.

Two large, multi-year studies funded by National Institutes of Health—the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) in prediabetes and Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) in type 2 diabetes—used a lower-calorie eating plan and encouraged people to be more aware of their fat consumption by counting fat grams and calories. They didn’t focus on carbs. Both studies showed that people who lost weight and kept as much off as possible experienced numerous health benefits over the years. Both studies also encouraged physical activity almost every day. 

What Percentage of Calories Should Come from Carbs?

If you think Americans eat a big percentage of calories from carbs, that’s incorrect. We eat about 50 percent of our calories from carbohydrate. The biggest problem is too many total calories and the types of calories consumed.  

Research shows Americans eat too much added sugar (22 teaspoons a day, which translates to about 350 calories!) and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods. Rather than focusing on the amount of carbs you eat, concentrate on increasing the quality of the sources of carbs you eat. Plus, minimize those sugary foods and sweets.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a wide range of calories from carbohydrate—45–65 percent. This considers varying nutrition needs and styles of eating, from meat eaters to plant-based vegetarian eaters. Research also shows that eating this amount of carbohydrate helps people stay at a healthier body weight.

How Many Carbs Are Right for You?

To determine the right amount of carb grams to aim for in your eating plan, choose one of the categories in the following slides that best matches your stature, weight status, weight goals, and activity level.

Consider the targets a starting point. Get a referral from your primary care provider or endocrinologist to meet with a dietitian and diabetes educator, and/or to attend a diabetes self-management education and support (DSMES) program, to determine the best goals for your health.

Remember, it’s not just about carbs. Calories count, too.

Category 1: A Woman of Small Stature Who Wants to Lose Weight

A woman who wants to lose weight, is small in stature, and/or gets limited exercise should consider the following:

Height: 4’10” to 5’2”

Daily calorie range: 1,200–1,400

Carb grams/day range*: 135–228 grams

Carb grams/meal range (3 meals per day): 45–76 grams

*Based on 45%–65% of calories from carbohydrate 

Category 2: A 65-Year-Old Woman Who Wants to Lose Weight

You’re a woman who is 65 years of age or older, wants to lose weight, has an average to large size stature, and/or gets limited exercise. Here are some basic calorie and carb recommendations:

Height: 5’3” to 5’8

Daily calorie range: 1,400–1,600

Carb grams/day range*: 158–260 grams

Carb grams/meal range (3 meals per day): 53–87 grams

*Based on 45%–65% of calories from carbohydrate.

Category 3: A Woman Who Wants to Maintain Weight

You’re a woman who is under 65 years of age, of moderate to large stature, and is at a healthy weight. Consider the following:

Height: 5’8” to 6’

Daily calorie range: 1,600–1,900

Carb grams/day range*: 180–308 grams

Carb grams/meal range (3 meals per day): 60–103 grams

*Based on 45%–65% of calories from carbohydrate.

Note: Women who are under 65 years of age, moderate to large in stature, at a healthy weight, and get a lot of exercise may need more calories and grams of carbohydrate. 

Category 4: A Man of Small Stature Who Wants to Lose Weight

If you are a man who is 65 years of age or older, are smaller in stature, want to lose weight, and/or get limited exercise, here are your recommendations:

Height: 5’4” to 5’8”

Daily calorie range: 1,600–1,900

Carb grams/day range*: 180–308 grams

Carb grams/meal range (3 meals per day): 60–103 grams

*Based on 45%–­65% of calories from carbohydrate.

Note: These recommendations are the same for a woman of small stature who wants to maintain weight.

Category 5: A Man Who Wants to Maintain Weight

You’re a man who is 65 years of age or younger, moderate to large in stature, at a healthy weight, and gets limited exercise. Here are some basic calorie and carb recommendations:

Height: 5’8” or taller

Daily calorie range: 2,300–2,800

Carb grams/day range*: 259–455 grams

Carb grams/meal range (3 meals per day): 86–151 grams

*Based on 45%–65% of calories from carbohydrate.

Note: Men who are under 65 years of age, moderate to large in stature, at a healthy weight, and get a lot of exercise may need more calories and grams of carbohydrate. 

What is Carb Counting?

Carb counting is a meal-planning method taught by some diabetes educators. It doesn’t prescribe a certain amount of carb grams to eat, but it helps you include healthy sources of carbs and a variety of foods you enjoy—even sweets, in moderation. 

Making Healthy Choices and Still Have High Blood Sugar?

According to American Diabetes Association guidelines, most people with type 2 diabetes should start taking a blood glucose-lowering medication, typically metformin (a generic medication that helps the body better use the insulin you still make), as soon as they are diagnosed.

Most people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes have had blood sugar levels in the diabetes range for months if not years before diagnosis. Don’t think of taking blood glucose-lowering medication as failing. Type 2 diabetes, with prediabetes as its starting point, is a progressive disease during which people slowly lose their insulin-making capabilities over time. It’s of no health value to severely restrict the amount of carbs you eat to manage your blood sugar levels and/or delay medication. The recommended course of action to stay healthy with type 2 diabetes is to get blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure numbers under control soon after the time of diagnosis—and maintain target goals—adjusting diet and medication as needed.

Hope Warshaw, RD, CDE, is a contributing editor for Diabetic Living and the author of numerous books published by the American Diabetes Association, including Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy (2010) and Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating (2009). 

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