The Importance of Counting Carbs If You Have Diabetes

white bread thumb Life with diabetes can seem complicated with glucose levels to monitor, medications to remember, and meals to plan. It can feel like your condition consumes your whole life. Complicated meal planning strategies only add to the confusion. But a simpler meal planning solution may work for you. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) considers counting carbohydrates (carbs) to be a key strategy for meeting glucose level goals.

The Basics of Counting Carbs

When you eat foods that contain carbs your blood glucose levels increase. By eating the right amount of the right kind of carbs, you can keep your glucose levels in your desired range. Carbs come in 3 varieties: starches, sugars, and fiber.

Knowing the number of carbs you need to eat each day is important to make carb-counting work for you. It will be based on several factors, including your activity level and any medications you take to control your glucose levels. Work with your doctor or dietitian to learn how many carbs you need to eat at each meal and snack. For example, you may have a goal of eating about 45-60 grams of carbs at each meal.

Planning a Meal by Counting Carbs

Where can you find the number of carbs in your food? Start with the nutrition facts label. Look for “total carbohydrate” on the label. This number accounts for carbs from starches, sugars, and fiber.

It is easy enough to count carbs if you have access to the nutrition facts labels of all your foods, but what about if you are eating at a restaurant? And what about foods that do not have a label, like fruits and vegetables? By knowing the number of carbs you need at each meal and the average number of carbs in a serving from each food group, you can plan a healthy meal that meets your dietary requirements. You can use these averages to count the carbs in your meal:

Type Carbs (grams)
Starch 15
Fruit 15
Milk 12
Vegetable 5
Meat 0
Fat 0

By following this table, you know that one serving of oatmeal with milk has 27 grams of carbs:

15 (starch) + 12 (milk) = 27 grams of carbs

Knowing your serving sizes is also important. Measuring equipment, like a food scale, measuring cups, and measuring spoons, can help you keep your portions on track. You can also keep general serving sizes in mind to help you estimate when you cannot measure exactly. For example, there is about 15 grams of carbs in:

  • 1 small piece of fruit (4 ounces)
  • ½ cup canned or frozen fruit
  • 1 slice of bread (1 ounce)
  • ½ cup cooked cereal
  • ¼ of a large baked potato
  • ½ cup ice cream
  • 2/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 small cookies

You may also want to have a carb-counting reference book. You can also download an app on your cell phone or tablet.

Filling Up With Fiber

Since fiber is not digested the same way as other carbs, you can subtract half the amount of fiber from the total carbs in any food that has more than 5 grams of fiber in a serving. As an added bonus, fiber-rich foods contribute to digestive health and keep you feeling full longer. A healthy diet should have at least 25-30 grams of fiber each day. Most of us get less than this, so any increase of fiber in your diet is a plus. Choosing whole-grain products will help you meet your fiber goals (and get some of the vitamins and minerals that are lost in refined products).

All Carbs Are Not Created Equal

It is possible to eat the right number of carbs but all the wrong foods. For example, a small piece of fresh fruit has the same number of carbs as ½ cup of the same canned fruit. But eating a fresh pear is far more nutritious, not only are you skipping all that refined sugar, you are also getting an extra dose of fiber from the pear’s skin. So count your carbs, but remember to make overall healthy choices and incorporate a variety of healthy foods into your diet.


American Diabetes Association
Joslin Diabetes Center


Canadian Diabetes Association
Public Health Agency of Canada


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Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 5/5/2017

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