Counting carbohydrates (carbs) is the main way individuals with diabetes plan meals and manage their blood glucose levels. There are three types of carbs in food: starches, sugar, and dietary fiber. Starches and sugar both raise blood glucose levels and both are important in meal planning. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the right amount of carbs depends upon each patient's activity levels and medications (if any).

If you're new to carb counting, use 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal as a starting point and adjust based on your personal diabetes management plan. Once you determine how many carbs to eat at meals, you can then choose the foods you'll eat and appropriate portion sizes. It is a good idea to also include protein and healthy fats in meals and snacks.

According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, once you learn to correctly count carbs, you can incorporate a wider range of foods into your meal plan while still managing blood glucose levels. If you take insulin, counting carbs allows more flexibility in meal planning because you can adjust your pre-meal insulin based on how many carbs you are eating. Individuals can decide how much to eat at a meal, rather than having to eat a certain amount of carbs just to reduce risk of incidents of low blood glucose.

Learn to Read Food Labels

The ADA encourages you to learn to read food labels, especially serving size and total grams of carbs. Manufacturers already add grams of sugar into total grams of carbohydrate, so you don't have to look at these separately. If a nutritional label isn't available, learn to estimate how many carbs are in foods based on portion size. For example, a small piece of fresh fruit, a slice of bread, ½ cup of oatmeal, ¼ large baked potato, two small cookies, or a cup of soup all contain roughly 15 grams of carbs.

Helpful Apps for Diabetics

Today's technology makes carb counting easy with downloadable apps. Patients participating in online diabetes forums especially recommend Carbs & Cals App and MyFitnessPal.

One scientist is developing a new algorithm called the Food Insulin Index, which is a relative measure of overall normal insulin demands of a food and may be a more holistic approach to predicting pre-meal insulin requirements for patients with type 1 diabetes. The Food Insulin Index may counter some of the shortcomings of carb counting, such as the protein and fat content or glycemic index of foods. However, until further research supports this approach, carb counting is still the best-known method for adjusting mealtime insulin doses.

Amber Taylor, MD, reviewed this article.


American Diabetes Association. "Make Your Carbs Count." Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.

American Diabetes Association. "Planning for Carbs." Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.

American Diabetes Association. "Carb Counting." Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.

American Diabetes Association. "Ask the Registered Dietitian Archives." Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.

Miriam E. Tucker, "Novel Food Algorithm to Improve Mealtime Insulin Dosing." Medscape Medical News, 28 June 2013. Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.

Joslin Diabetes Center. "Carbohydrate Counting 101." Web. Accessed 1 December 2013.