Carb Counting 101: Your 4-Step Gameplan

Everyone seems to have an opinion on carbs. Runners love them. Dieters hate them. The ketogenic crowd thinks they should be eliminated from the earth.

But if you have diabetes, you can’t afford to eat your carbs based on the latest trends. Your blood sugar is relying on you to do a little more planning, and carb counting is a straightforward system that can help you hit your goals. People with type 1 have been using carb counting to plan meals and bolus amounts for a long time, but people with type 2 (and really, anyone) can take advantage of carb counting to get a better handle of how many carbs they are actually eating versus what their goals are.

Carb counting becomes easier over time, so get out your notebook, and get ready for our 4-step carb class!

Photo: AdobeStock/ Andrey Popov
Photo: AdobeStock/Andrey Popov

Step 1: Why You Should Consider Carb Counting

There are lots of things that affect blood sugar, protein and fat included, but carbs are what will be converted to glucose and will have the biggest effect on your blood sugar. Having a plan for your carbohydrate consumption can help you manage your blood sugar (and your weight), and knowing how to count carbs means you’ll have the flexibility in planning your meals and snacks.

If you use insulin, then you’ll want to be able to count carbs so you can plan your bolus around your meal rather than the other way around.

Photo: pixabay/congerdesign
Photo: pixabay/congerdesign

Step 2: Gather your tools

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Meal plan. If you can, work out a meal plan with a dietitian or nutritionist. Each person is unique and will need a different amount of daily carbs based on activity level, size, and nutrition goals. A plan will give you guidance on when to eat your carbs. You can also use online tools to calculate how many carbs you should be eating. You don’t have to have a meal plan to count carbs, but sticking to a plan will you control your blood sugar and make informed meal choices.
  • Carb-Counting Companion. Packaged foods will have a nutrition label which will make calculating simple, but not everything you eat has a label, so you’ll need either a food counts book, a chart, an online tool (you can also ask Google), or a specialized app that can tell you how many carbs are in unlabeled foods.
  • Food scale and measuring cups. It doesn’t help you to know that there are 49 carbohydrates in 100 grams of bread unless you know how many grams of bread you are actually eating. It might seem arduous to measure all your food, but you’ll get the hang of it, and you may even get to where you can estimate fairly accurately.
  • Calculator. This is just in case math is not really your thing!
Photo: AdobeStock/Tyler Olson
Photo: AdobeStock/Tyler Olson

Step 3: Begin calculating!

If you are calculating bolus insulin, you will need to know how many grams of carbohydrates each unit of insulin covers. Side note, if you are using insulin you should talk to a diabetes educator for the full run down on your basal and bolus insulin plan. Different types of insulin cover different carb amounts, so be sure to factor that in!

Crunching numbers…

Food with labels should be easy. The label will tell you how many total carbohydrates there are in a food, but you do have to be sure to account for serving size. If there are 10 carbs in a serving, but 2 and a half servings in a package (why is it always an awkward amount?) then you’ll have to calculate accordingly.

For unlabeled foods, you’ll want to find the carbs per gram and then measure the grams (or cups or whatever system you’re using). Don’t forget to include drinks!

Photo: AdobeStock/Kurhan
Photo: AdobeStock/Kurhan

Now multiply the number of grams you’ll each of each food by the number of carbs, and total the carbs from each food group. Add in the number of carbs you’re eating from package foods, and crunch the numbers! Is the total number of carbs what you’d planned? Does it fit in with your meal plan? Adjust if necessary. Then calculate your bolus if you use insulin, and enjoy your meal!

The Shortcut:
You can also calculate based on serving size. Starches and fruit have about 15 carbs per serving, milk has 12, and one serving of vegetables has about 5 grams of carbohydrate. The trick is that serving sizes vary, and are typically smaller than we’re used to. There are a lot of apps and online tools that can provide serving sizes

Photo: AdobeStock/luckybusiness
Photo: AdobeStock/luckybusiness

NOTE: This is a lot of work, but even if you only calculate for a few meals, carb counting will provide incredible awareness about how many carbs you are eating versus how many you should be or want to be eating. It can also help you identify which foods are worth the carbs to you and which foods are not. There are 55 carbs in a Starbucks blueberry muffin? Suddenly it might not look quite as appetizing.

Step 4: Keep Going!

Your carb-counting skills will improve with time, and better carb regulation will lead to better blood sugar control, which of course is a big win! Stay healthy, friends!

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.

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