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Counting carbohydrates

Alternate Names

Carb counting

Nutrients and carbohydrates

The three major nutrients in food are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Carbohydrates are in fruit, cereal, bread, pasta, and rice. They are quickly turned into a sugar called glucose in your body. This raises your blood sugar level.

People with diabetes can control their blood sugar better if they can count how many carbohydrates they eat.

Types of carbohydrates

Your body turns carbohydrates into energy. They are an essential part of your diet. There are two major types: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are sugars found naturally in food. They can also be added to food. They include:

  • Candy
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Sugar-sweetened products
  • Table sugar
  • Vegetables

Complex carbohydrates have sugars that are chemically linked together. Your body breaks them down into sugar after you eat them. They are starches found in food. They include:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Legumes such as beans and chick peas
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes

Counting your carbs

Some foods, such as jelly beans, are all carbohydrates. Others, such as meat and fish, have no carbohydrates.

Most foods, even vegetables, have some carbohydrates. A 2,000 calorie per day diet that is 50% carbohydrates will have 250 grams of carbohydrate per day. Most adults with diabetes should eat no more than 200 grams per day. But each person should have their own carb goal.

Packaged foods have labels that tell you how many carbohydrates the food has. They will be measured in grams. You can use food labels to count the carbs you should have.

The food label will say what the serving size is. It will also tell you how many grams of carbohydrates are in a serving.

Sometimes the label will list sugar, starch, and fiber separately. The carb count for a food is the total of these. Multiply the number of servings you eat by the number of grams of carbohydrates per serving. This will give you the carb count for what you eat.

You have to measure how many carbs are in foods that are not packaged. Then you have to calculate the total carbs in what you eat.

For example, cooked long grain rice has 15 grams of carbohydrates per 1/3 cup. If you eat a cup of cooked long grain rice, you will eat 45 grams of carbohydrates.

Foods that have 15 grams of carbohydrates are:

  • ½ cup of canned fruit (without the juice or syrup)
  • ½ cup of oatmeal
  • 1/3 cup of pasta (can vary with the shape)
  • 1/3 cup of long grain rice
  • ¼ cup of short grain rice
  • 1 cup of soup
  • 1 and ¼ cup of milk
  • ¼ servings of medium French fries

Adding up your carbohydrates

The total amount of carbs you eat in a day is the sum of the carb counts of everything you eat.

When you are learning how to count carbs, it will be easier to use a log book or sheet of paper to help you track them. Over time, it will get easier to estimate your carbs accurately.

Most people with diabetes should see a nutritionist every year. This will help them refresh their knowledge of carb counting and nutrition. They may also learn new tricks to make carb counting easy.

Ask your health care provider for more information.


American Diabetes Association. Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes: a position statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2008;31:S61-S78.

Carbohydrate counting. American Diabetes Association. (accessed October 30, 2010)

Review Date: 11/15/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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