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Basic Carbohydrate Counting

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.


Carbohydrate counting

is a way to plan your meals by counting the amount of carbohydrate in foods. Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fiber found in fruit, grains, vegetables, and milk products. Carbohydrates increase your blood sugar levels. Carbohydrate counting can help you eat the right amount of carbohydrate to keep your blood sugar levels under control.

What you need to know about planning meals using carbohydrate counting:

  • A dietitian or healthcare provider will help you develop a healthy meal plan that works best for you. You will be taught how much carbohydrate to eat or drink for each meal and snack. Your meal plan will be based on your age, weight, usual food intake, and physical activity level. If you have diabetes, it will also include your blood sugar levels and diabetes medicine. Once you know how much carbohydrate you should eat, you can decide what type of food you want to eat.
  • You will need to know what foods contain carbohydrate and how much they contain. Keep track of the amount of carbohydrate in meals and snacks in order to follow your meal plan. Do not avoid carbohydrates or skip meals. Your blood sugar may fall too low if you do not eat enough carbohydrate or you skip meals.

Foods that contain carbohydrate:

  • Breads: Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • 1 slice of bread (1 ounce) or 1 flour or corn tortilla (6 inch)
    • ½ of a hamburger bun or ¼ of a large bagel (about 1 ounce)
    • 1 pancake (about 4 inches across and ¼ inch thick)
  • Cereals and grains: Serving sizes of ready-to-eat cereals vary. Look at the serving size and the total carbohydrate amount listed on the food label. Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • ¾ cup of dry, unsweetened, ready-to-eat cereal or ¼ cup of low-fat granola
    • ½ cup of oatmeal or other cooked cereal
    • ⅓ cup of cooked rice or pasta
  • Starchy vegetables and beans: Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • ½ cup of corn, green peas, sweet potatoes, or mashed potatoes
    • ¼ of a large baked potato
    • ½ cup of beans, lentils, and peas (garbanzo, pinto, kidney, white, split, black-eyed)
  • Crackers and snacks: Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • 3 graham cracker squares or 8 animal crackers
    • 6 saltine-type crackers
    • 3 cups of popcorn or ¾ ounce of pretzels, potato chips, or tortilla chips
  • Fruit: Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • 1 small (4 ounce) piece of fresh fruit or ¾ to 1 cup of fresh fruit
    • ½ cup of canned or frozen fruit, packed in natural juice
    • ½ cup (4 ounces) of unsweetened fruit juice
    • 2 tablespoons of dried fruit
  • Desserts or sugary foods: Each serving of food listed below contains about 15 g of carbohydrate .
    • 2-inch square unfrosted cake or brownie
    • 2 small cookies
    • ½ cup of ice cream, frozen yogurt, or nondairy frozen yogurt
    • ¼ cup of sherbet or sorbet
    • 1 tablespoon of regular syrup, jam, or jelly
    • 2 tablespoons of light syrup
  • Milk and yogurt: Foods from the milk group contain about 12 g of carbohydrate per serving.
    • 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk
    • 1 cup of soy milk
    • ⅔ cup of fat-free, yogurt sweetened with artificial sweetener
  • Non-starchy vegetables: Each serving contains about 5 g of carbohydrate . Three servings of non-starch vegetables count as 1 carbohydrate serving.
    • ½ cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of raw vegetables. This includes beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini
    • ½ cup of vegetable juice

How to use carbohydrate counting to plan meals:

  • Count carbohydrate amounts using serving sizes:
    • Pasta dinner example: You plan to have pasta, tossed salad, and an 8-ounce glass of milk. Your healthcare provider tells you that you may have 4 carbohydrate servings for dinner. One carbohydrate serving of pasta is ⅓ cup. One cup of pasta will equal 3 carbohydrate servings. An 8-ounce glass of milk will count as 1 carbohydrate serving. These amounts of food would equal 4 carbohydrate servings. One cup of tossed salad does not count toward your carbohydrate servings.
  • Count carbohydrate amounts using food labels: Find the total amount of carbohydrate in a packaged food by reading the food label. Food labels tell you the serving size of the food and the total carbohydrate amount in each serving. Find the serving size on the food label and then decide how many servings you will eat. Multiply the number of servings you plan to eat by the carbohydrate amount per serving.
    • Granola bar snack example: Your meal plan allows you to have 2 carbohydrate servings (30 grams) of carbohydrate for a snack. You plan to eat 1 package of granola bars, which contains 2 bars. According to the food label, the serving size of food in this package is 1 bar. Each serving (1 bar) contains 25 grams of carbohydrate. The total amount of carbohydrate in this package of granola bars would be 50 g. Based on your meal plan, you should eat only 1 bar.

Follow up with your doctor as directed:

Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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