In this tip series, Amy passes on some wisdom she's picked up about “carbs” and how to keep them under control for good diabetes management.

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Carb counting is a tool for managing your BG levels by calculating the precise amount of carbohydrates you are eating at each meal and snack. It is used intensely by many people with Type 1 diabetes to set the appropriate insulin doses for the food they eat.

Here’s how it works: Carbohydrate in foods is measured in grams (g). One “carb serving” is the amount of a food that contains 15 grams of carbohydrate.

People with diabetes are often advised to eat no more than 3 carb servings per meal, or 45g of carb for women; and no more than 4 carb servings, or 60g carb, per meal for men.

For calculating your carbs:

Packaged foods of course have nutrition labels that can help you understand the carb content of those foods. But to read those labels correctly, be aware:

  • Table sugar (sucrose) and glucose are listed separately on food labels. This doesn’t mean much. Despite the separate listing, they have the same effect on your nutrition and BG (blood glucose) levels as most carbohydrates. You’ll want to look at the total carbohydrate count instead.
  • The food’s listed “serving size” is key. For example, a can of soup may say it contains 30 grams of carbs per serving. Check the number of “servings” in the can! Let’s say there are 2. Then if you eat the whole can, you’ll need to DOUBLE the amount of carbohydrate listed to understand how many much you’ve eaten – in this case 60 grams of carb.

For foods that are not labeled:

  • You can use a kitchen scale to weigh your food, which some people find extremely helpful, especially in the beginning while they’re getting familiar with serving sizes.
  • You can also learn to eyeball it pretty accurately using your fist as a unit measure. Think of your fist as a ball of 15 carbs (as long as your fist isn’t unusually large).
  • Compare a pile of rice or pasta to your fist. If it looks about the size of one fist, it’s about 15 g of carb. Two and a half fists is about 38 carbs, and so on.

Helpful Tools:

Books and gadgets for understanding carbs are big business these days. In case you’re interested in having a little pocket guide that you can easily carry along with you, the ADA offers two: the Pocket Guide to Diabetic Exchanges (American Diabetes Association, March 1998) and the Fast Facts Series Carb Counting Made Easy for People with Diabetes (American Diabetes Association, 2002). Both offer 64 pages of extremely portable and useful information.

Other Tips in This Series:

Tip 1: How to Recognize a Carb

Tip 2: There Really ARE Good and Bad Carbs

Tip 3: How to Avoid Carb Overload

Tip 5: What a Nutritionist Can Do for You