Basic Carbohydrate Counting

Carbohydrates (car-bow-HIGH-drates) are nutrients in food that turn into glucose (sugar) after being digested to provide energy to the body. People with diabetes should have a moderate amount of carbohydrate at each meal, rather than avoiding them completely. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate at each meal will help to keep blood glucose in a healthy range.

Below are some basic guidelines for counting and regulating the amount of carbohydrate in the diet. In general, these foods contain carbohydrates:

§  starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, dried beans, corn, and peas

§  fruits: fresh, frozen, canned and juice

§  all breads, cereals, pasta, rice and crackers

§  milk and yogurt

§  desserts and sweets

§  most snack foods

Carbohydrates (carbs) are often counted in "servings" or "choices". One carb choice contains about 15 grams of total carbohydrate. The portions in the table below are equal to one carb choice. In general, women should have 3 to 4 carb choices at each meal and men should have 4 to 5 carb choices at each meal. Both can have 1 to 2 carb choices as an evening snack.

Food choices equaling one carbohydrate choice (15grams of total carbs)

Meat and meat substitutes (protein)

Meat and meat substitutes do not raise your blood glucose. If eaten in excess, they can keep the blood glucose elevated for a longer period of time. Also, meats high in fat can raise cholesterol levels and cause weight gain. It is important to make healthy food choices, so choose lean meats such as:

§  fish

§  skinless chicken

§  skinless turkey

§  reduced-fat peanut butter

§  low-fat cheese or cottage cheese

§  pork loin

Limit high-fat protein sources,including highly marbled beef, regular cheese, hot dogs, and processed lunch meats (such as bologna and salami). Rather than frying, prepare foods by baking, broiling, grilling or steaming.


Fat does not raise your blood glucose,but like protein, can keep the blood glucose elevated if eaten in excess. Fat can contribute to heart disease and weight gain. It is important that you limit the amount of fat you eat and choose healthy fats most often.

§  Use less regular salad dressing, mayonnaise, cream cheese, sour cream, gravy and nuts.

§  Choose reduced-fat products and limit the size of your portions.

§  Olive and canola oils are healthier fats for your heart. Once again, limit your portions.


Sodium (SO-dee-um) is a mineral found in many foods and medicines. It is most commonly known as salt. In the body, sodium helps to regulate blood pressure and body fluids. Most Americans consume more than 5,000 mg (milligrams) of sodium daily. A healthy diet for people with diabetes would be to limit sodium to less than 1,500 mg daily. To reduce sodium in the diet:

§  do not use salt at the table or in cooking

§  avoid canned, processed and pre-packaged foods

§  avoid fast foods 

Free foods you may enjoy

You can eat unlimited amounts of food and drinks that have zero carbohydrate and zero calories. These include water, diet drinks, and sugar-free gelatin.

Non-starchy vegetables contain small amounts of carbohydrate. Try to eat at least 2 to 3 servings (1/2 cup cooked or1 cup raw) with each meal. These foods are good for you because they are high in fiber and low in calories and carbohydrate:

You may eat food and drinks that have 5grams or less of total carbohydrate per serving. You should limit yourself to 2to 3 servings throughout the day. (For information, read the section in this page called, “Understanding food labels.”)

Sugar-free sweets are NOT free foods;they still may contain carbohydrates. Be careful not to eat too much sugar-free candy. For example, if 1 piece of sugar-free hard candy contains 5 grams of total carbohydrate and you eat 3 pieces at a time, you ate 15 grams of total carbohydrate.

Eat regular meals

People with diabetes should eat the same moderate amount of total carbohydrate at about the same time every day. In other words, eat the same number of carbohydrate choices at each meal. Follow a schedule and space meals about 4 to 5 hours apart.

Low carbohydrate products

Labels on many supermarket foods read“low carbohydrate” (low carb). Before you buy a low-carbohydrate food, be sure to look at the nutrition label.

Some low-carbohydrate products may have higher amounts of other items such as calories, fat and sodium than the regular products. If so, they may not be good choices for your meal plan. Remember,there are no government guidelines for low-carbohydrate and net-carbohydrate products.

In addition, sugar alcohols are often found in low-carbohydrate foods. They can affect blood glucose. They also may have a laxative effect and cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some individuals.

Understandingfood labels

In general, 1 carbohydrate choice equals about 15 grams of total carbohydrate per serving.

Examples include:

§  1 slice bread = 15grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice

§  1 small apple = 15grams total carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate choice

§  1 cup milk = 12 grams total carbohydrate = 1   carbohydrate choice

Review this sample nutrition label to help you understand more about counting carbohydrates.

Start with serving size. How many servings will you eat? The nutrients listed are based on 1 serving of food.Note the number of servings in the package.

The total fat, saturated fat, and trans-fat content are important. Try to keep these low.

Look at the total carbohydrate number. This shows the amount of carbohydrate in 1 serving of this food.If you eat 2 servings, you must double the number of carbohydrate grams. Dietary fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols are indented under the total carbohydrate count because they are part of the total carbohydrate amount.

A diet high in fiber can help manage cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Look for food products with more than 5 grams of fiber.  

Conversion guide

Not all food products will be a perfect15 grams of total carbohydrate. Use this conversion chart to translate your nutrition label. Be sure to check the serving size. Example: 5 large pretzels contain 26 grams of total carbohydrate, which equals 2 carbohydrate choices.