Carbohydrate Counting & Diabetes

What is carbohydrate counting?

Carbohydrate counting, also called carb counting, is a meal planning tool for people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Carbohydrate counting involves keeping track of the amount of carbohydrate in the foods you eat each day.

Carbohydrates are one of the main nutrients found in food and drinks. Protein and fat are the other main nutrients. Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbohydrate counting can help you control your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, levels because carbohydrates affect your blood glucose more than other nutrients.

Healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are an important part of a healthy eating plan because they can provide both energy and nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, and fiber. Fiber can help you prevent constipation, lower your cholesterol levels, and control your weight.

Unhealthy carbohydrates are often food and drinks with added sugars. Although unhealthy carbohydrates can also provide energy, they have little to no nutrients. More information about which carbohydrates provide nutrients for good health and which carbohydrates do not is provided in the NIDDK health topic, Diabetes Diet and Eating.

The amount of carbohydrate in foods is measured in grams. To count grams of carbohydrate in foods you eat, you’ll need to

know which foods contain carbohydrates
learn to estimate the number of grams of carbohydrate in the foods you eat
add up the number of grams of carbohydrate from each food you eat to get your total for the day
Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian or diabetes educator who can help you develop a healthy eating plan based on carbohydrate counting.

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Which foods contain carbohydrates?

Foods that contain carbohydrates include

  • grains, such as bread, noodles, pasta, crackers, cereals, and rice
  • fruits, such as apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, melons, and oranges
  • dairy products, such as milk and yogurt
  • legumes, including dried beans, lentils, and peas
  • snack foods and sweets, such as cakes, cookies, candy, and other desserts
  • juices, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks that contain sugars
  • vegetables, especially “starchy” vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas
  • Potatoes, peas, and corn are called starchy vegetables because they are high in starch. These vegetables have more carbohydrates per serving than nonstarchy vegetables.

Examples of nonstarchy vegetables are asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, green beans, lettuce and other salad greens, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini.

Foods that do not contain carbohydrates include meat, fish, and poultry; most types of cheese; nuts; and oils and other fats.

What happens when I eat foods containing carbohydrates?

When you eat foods containing carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks down the sugars and starches into glucose. Glucose is one of the simplest forms of sugar. Glucose then enters your bloodstream from your digestive tract and raises your blood glucose levels. The hormone insulin, which comes from the pancreas or from insulin shots, helps cells throughout your body absorb glucose and use it for energy. Once glucose moves out of the blood into cells, your blood glucose levels go back down.

How can carbohydrate counting help me?

Carbohydrate counting can help keep your blood glucose levels close to normal. Keeping your blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible may help you

  • stay healthy longer
  • prevent or delay diabetes problems such as kidney disease, blindness, nerve damage, and blood vessel disease that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and amputations—surgery to remove a body part
  • feel better and more energetic

You may also need to take diabetes medicines or have insulin shots to control your blood glucose levels. Discuss your blood glucose targets with your doctor. Targets are numbers you aim for. To meet your targets, you will need to balance your carbohydrate intake with physical activity and diabetes medicines or insulin shots.