. Carb Counting for Diabetes: How to Achieve Consistent Blood Sugars |

Carb Counting for Diabetes: How to Achieve Consistent Blood Sugars

Does the thought of reading food labels and counting carbohydrates sound daunting and complicated to you?  It can feel like a lot to learn but it truly is very simple. 

In this article, we will break down the basics of why carb counting with diabetes is important, how to get started with carb counting, as well as some more advanced tips. There is also a list of our favorite free apps to help with carb counting at the end.

Let’s jump in!

Carb Counting Basics

Let’s get into some basics about carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient that are found in many foods and drinks. They are the body’s main source of energy. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the sugar that our bodies use for fuel.

What are the different types of carbohydrates?

  • Sugar: Sugar is considered a simple carbohydrate. Sugar is quickly broken down by the body. It is found in many foods and drinks, including fruits, vegetables, milk, and processed foods.
  • Starches: Starches are considered complex carbohydrates.  They are made up of many sugar molecules strung together. They are found in grains, breads, cereals, and pastas.  Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to break down than simple carbohydrates so they do not impact the blood sugar as quickly.
  • Fiber: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot fully digest. It is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Fiber is important for digestive health and can also help to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.  

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, but it is important to choose healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Processed foods and sugary drinks are high in simple carbohydrates and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

What is carb counting?

Carb counting is a meal planning tool used to manage blood sugar levels. It involves tracking the number of carbohydrates you eat and drink throughout the day.

To count carbs, you need to know how many carbohydrates are in the food and drinks you consume. You can find this information on food labels, carb counting books, or apps (more on apps below). 

Carb counting can be used to help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels in a number of ways.  It can help people to choose foods that will have a smaller impact on blood sugar spikes, match their insulin dose to their carb intake, and adjust their carb intake or insulin dose based on their blood sugar levels.

How to read a food label for carbs

Image of cereal box food label pointing out serving size and total carbohydrates

Understanding what to look for on a food label is key to carb counting.  The first thing you need to always look at is the serving size.  For example, the food label on the cereal box in the image above shows the serving size as 1 cup.

The next thing to look at is the Total Carbohydrates.  In this example, the total carbohydrates are 20g.  Don’t worry about the % daily value on the right hand side of the label, this is not used in carb counting.

Under the Total Carbohydrates, you will see Dietary Fiber, Total Sugars, and Added Sugars.  Some labels might have something called “Other Carbohydrates”.  All of these numbers are already included in the Total Carbohydrates, so while it is best to avoid foods with high amounts of added sugars, this is already accounted for in the Total Carbohydrates.

Carb servings vs. carb grams

We can talk about carbs in terms of “servings” or “grams”.  The grams are what we see on the food label (for example, this label has 20 grams of carbs per 1 cup of cereal).  The 35 grams that you see at the top of the label next to the serving size is the weight of the product and has nothing to do with the grams of carbohydrates.

Some people find it easier to convert the grams of total carbohydrates into carb servings. One carb serving is equal to 15 grams of total carbohydrates.  This can simplify things a bit because you can round to the nearest 15 grams.  For example, this cereal is 20 grams of carbs per cup so we could say one serving of this cereal is around 1 carb serving.

How many carbs should I consume?

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) used to recommend specific ranges of carbohydrates as targets for individuals.  This changed several years ago and now ADA no longer recommend a specific percentage of carbohydrates for people with diabetes. Instead, they recommend an individualized approach that takes into account dietary preferences, metabolic goals, and other factors.

What I find works best for myself and many of the clients I work with is to limit carbohydrates, but not avoid them completely.  My personal sweet spot is around 30 grams of carb (2 carb servings) per meal. I notice that this allows me to eat carbs that I enjoy without causing a large blood sugar spike after eating.

The ADA recommends that people with diabetes work with a registered dietitian to create a meal plan that meets their individual needs. This meal plan should include a variety of healthy foods from all food groups, including carbohydrates.

Advanced Carb Counting

Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s dive into some more advanced carb counting topics.

Net carbs

Net carbs are the number of carbohydrates in a food that are actually absorbed by the body. They are calculated by subtracting the fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrates.

Calculating net carbs is popular with some low carb and keto diets.  When it comes to blood sugar levels, we do not recommend utilizing net carbs because some of the fiber and sugar alcohol may still have a small impact on the blood sugar.

A more advanced technique that works well for blood sugar control is to subtract half of the fiber and/or sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrates if the food has 5 or more grams of fiber and/or sugar alcohol per serving.  For example, if you are eating a high fiber tortilla with 20 grams of carbs and 10 grams of fiber, you could subtract 5 of the grams of fiber from the total carbs making it 15 grams of total carbohydrate.

Hidden Carbs

Another term you may have heard or read about is hidden carbs.  Hidden carbs are carbohydrates that are found in foods that are not typically thought of as being high in carbs. 

They can be found in many processed foods and drinks, as well as in some unexpected places, such as salad dressings and condiments like ketchup and barbeque sauce.  Normally a small amount of these foods will not have much blood sugar impact, but if you use a large amount the carbs can add up.  It is important to read food labels to catch these hidden carbs.

Free foods

Free foods are foods and drinks that contain very few to no carbohydrates (less than 5 grams per serving) and are low in calories (less than 20 calories per serving). These foods can be eaten without having to count their carbohydrates because they have very little impact on the blood sugar.

Here are some examples of free foods:

  • Non-starchy vegetables including leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, celery, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, zucchini
  • Pickles
  • Herbs and spices
  • Unsweetened beverages including water, sparkling water, black coffee, unsweetened tea, diet soda
  • Sugar-free gum 
  • Bouillon or broth
  • Vinegar
  • Sugar-free gelatin

How to estimate carbs in home cooked meals

It can take some practice to determine how many carbs are in home cooked meals.  The first step is to figure out which ingredients have carbohydrates and which do not.  You will then determine the amounts used of the ingredients that have carbs and add them together and then pay attention to the portion to be consumed at the meal. 

As you cook more meals at home you will begin to get more comfortable with estimating the carbohydrates in these meals. There are several apps or websites available such as MyFitnessPal or SparkPeople that allow you to enter the ingredients and number of portions the recipe makes to calculate the carb content.  You can also use these apps to search for a similar item that may have the same amount of carbohydrates as what you have prepared. 

Many websites and blogs as well as cookbooks now have recipes with the nutrition facts, including total carbohydrates per serving listed so sticking with these while you are getting the hang of carbohydrate counting might make life a bit easier.

How to match your insulin dose to your carb intake

To match your insulin dose to your carb intake, you need to know your insulin-to-carb ratio (I:C ratio). This is the number of grams of carbohydrate that each unit of insulin will cover. Your I:C ratio will vary depending on your individual needs, so it is important to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to determine your I:C ratio.

Once you know your I:C ratio, you can calculate your insulin dose for each meal by counting the grams of carbohydrate in your meal or snack and dividing the grams of carbohydrate by your I:C ratio.

For example, if you have an I:C ratio of 1:10 and you are eating a meal that contains 45 grams of carbohydrate, you would need to take 4.5 units of insulin.

It is important to note that your insulin dose may also need to be adjusted based on other factors such as your blood sugar before the meal, your activity level, and any other medications you are taking.

Carb counting with insulin pumps

Insulin pumps can be very helpful in regards to determining insulin dosages.  Many insulin pumps have built in calculators that allow you to enter in the amount of carbohydrates you are eating and your blood sugar and it will determine how much insulin you should take based on several settings that have been programmed into the device.  It knows how much insulin you have onboard and uses a specific algorithm to calculate the exact insulin dose needed.

What is the Diabetes Plate Method?

If reading this is making your head spin and leaving you feeling even more confused, don’t worry.  We highly recommend setting up an appointment with a registered dietitian to discuss carb counting and how to make it work for you or your child. You can contact us to inquire about our 1:1 Diabetes Coaching services.

In the meantime, focusing on the Diabetes Plate Method is a great place to start. The Diabetes Plate Method recommends that non-starchy vegetables fill half of your plate, lean protein fills one-quarter of your plate, and healthy carbohydrates fill one-quarter of your plate.  This is a simple and effective way to ensure you are getting plenty of nutrients without eating too many carbs.

Best carb counting apps

Lastly, there are many free apps available to assist with carb counting.  A few of our favorites include:

  • MyFitnessPal is a popular food tracking app that lets you track calories, carbs, exercise, and weight. It has a huge database of foods and meals, so you can easily find what you’re looking for.
  • Carb Manager is a great app for carb counting and low-carb diets. It has a comprehensive database of foods and meals, as well as the ability to track your carb intake, blood sugar levels, and weight.
  • CalorieKing Food Search is an app that has a database of over 150,000 foods, including 260 fast food chains and restaurants. Their app has a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to look up nutritional information.
  • Figwee is a photo-based app that lets you take pictures of your food and it will determine the nutritional information, including carbohydrates.
  • Fooducate is an app that helps you make healthier food choices. It has a database of foods and meals, as well as the ability to track carb intake, calories, and other nutrients. It also has a grade system for foods, which can help you make more informed choices.
  • Diabetes:M is an app specifically designed for people with diabetes. It has many features including the ability to track carb intake, blood sugar levels, insulin doses, and activity levels.


In conclusion, carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. It is important to choose healthy sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and to monitor portion sizes of carbohydrates when you have diabetes.

Carbohydrate counting is a fantastic tool to help maintain consistent blood sugars, but if this seems to complex you can always utilize the Diabetes Plate Method as a starting point.  Remember to talk to your doctor or dietitian about how many carbohydrates you should consume and how much insulin to take for carbohydrates.

Furthermore, there are many free or inexpensive apps and websites available to help with carb counting, meal planning, and determining carbs in home cooked and restaurant foods.

Make sure to check out our post on Low Carb Breakfasts Without Eggs for some carb friendly breakfast ideas.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top