If you live with diabetes, carb counting is a tool that may help you manage blood sugar. With this strategy, you estimate the amount of carbohydrate in your foods with the goal of staying within a predetermined range for each meal and snack. My clients love that carb counting can allow them to enjoy many foods as long as they keep the total amount of carbohydrates within their meal or snack allowance. If you haven’t yet learned about this meal planning technique, check out the basics of carb counting and schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you individualize your meal plan. (Be sure to check with your care team before making any changes to your diet.)
Carb counting isn’t as simple as it sounds, though. Sure, counting is simple. But estimating the amount of carbohydrates in various foods takes practice! Here are some tips to help polish your skills.
Know what your dish holds
The food label tells you that a cup of your favorite cereal has 20 grams of carbohydrate, but how much did you pour into your bowl? Take time to learn how much your bowls, cups and glasses hold. Fill them with water and pour the water into a measuring cup. If you want to limit your portion to just a cup, use a bowl that’s just big enough for your cereal and milk.
Check portions for accuracy
Measuring your food is best, but that grows old quickly and leaves you with extra things to wash. Many of my patients ditch the measuring cups once they feel comfortable with estimating their portions. Unfortunately, it’s easy for a ⅓-cup serving of rice over time to inch its way to a ½-cup serving and then to something bigger. I encourage clients to measure their foods at least twice monthly. Fill your plate as you normally would. Before taking even a nibble, scrape the foods into measuring cups to see just how close your estimates are. My colleague Cory Eck, MCN, RD, who lives with type 1 diabetes, has another trick I like a lot. His patients identify household items – kitchen sponge, smartphone, tennis ball – that are similar in size to a known serving of mashed potatoes or other carb-rich foods.
Create a cheat sheet
Chances are you eat the same several dozen foods over and over. Instead of looking up – or trying to remember – the carb counts, develop your own database. As you eat carbohydrate-rich foods, measure your usual portion and use food labels, carb counting books or online databases to determine the carb counts in the amount you typically eat. Record them on the computer, smartphone or in a notebook. Do the same with restaurant meals.
Ask for the facts
Most chain restaurants and many others have nutrition facts available. (Read more tips for dining out.)
Calculate carbs in recipes
Learn the carb counts of family favorite recipes at Supertracker or other online nutrient database. Enter each ingredient and the number of servings per recipe. The website does the rest.
Look for hidden carbs
Plenty of foods, like salad dressings and spaghetti sauce, have just a few grams of carbohydrate in a small serving. If your serving is large or if you eat several foods with a few grams of carbs each, you might consume an amount heftier than you think. Read labels carefully. When dining out, assume that most sauces have some sugar or starch or both. (Read more about so-called “free” foods.)
Try a food scale with programmed nutrition data
Size matters. The carb count in your apple, orange or potato is dependent on the food’s weight. Place your food on a smart food scale to learn the nutrition facts for the amount of food in front of you. (Read more about portion sizes and carb counts for fruits and vegetables.)
Guestimate combination foods
The carbs in casseroles, breaded chicken, stews and other combination foods are especially difficult to estimate. Use these rules of thumb that I’ve learned over the years from colleagues and patients.
- Submarine rolls: 15 grams carbohydrate per 2 inches or 1 ounce
- Breaded meats: 15 grams carbohydrate for 6 chicken nuggets[i] or a single chicken or fish patty
- Soups and stews: 15 grams if it’s mostly broth, non-starchy vegetables and meat.
It takes practice and patience, but soon you’ll be a carb counting pro.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE*, FAND, is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week by Week, The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition and 21 Things You Need to Know about Diabetes and Your Heart. She is contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Diabetes Forecast, and Kids Eat Right. She has a private practice in Newport News, VA. Weisenberger is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.
© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience