Easy as 1-2-3: counting carbohydrates

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture, notes that Americans consume too many calories from refined grains, solid fats and added sugars. The guidelines recommend developing healthy eating patterns that include focusing on consuming nutrient-dense foods. The cornerstone of these eating patterns?


Today, carbohydrates are the principal source of calories for most Americans. Yet, while they are constantly discussed, they are sometimes challenging to understand.

How the body processes carbohydrates

From "naturally occurring" to "processed grains", "added sugar" to "complex carbohydrates," the lingo surrounding carbohydrates can be difficult to navigate. Simply put, carbohydrates provide energy for the body. Broken down into glucose, which is carried through the blood to the liver, they are either used for bodily energy, or stored. While carbohydrates are broken down more quickly than protein or fats, the type of carbohydrate has an important impact on its value to a healthy diet, especially for those with diabetes.

Carbohydrates can be classified into two types, simple and complex:

  1. Simple carbohydrates: These can be found naturally in foods, in fruits and honey (fructose), in milk (lactose), or be added to foods such as sugar (sucrose).

  2. Complex carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates contain three or more sugars. Although found naturally as fiber in food such as beans and legumes, they are most commonly found as starches in foods such as potatoes and grains.

How to count carbohydrates

Keeping carbohydrates in check can help you keep your blood glucose levels in your target range. Doing so means counting. Counting at every meal. But, counting carbohydrates is as simple as elementary math: Estimate the carbohydrates you eat for every meal and snack, then add them all together.

According to the American Diabetes Association, a good starting range is 45 - 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal. However, that number may need to be raised or lowered, depending on how you manage your blood glucose levels.

Using a simple carbohydrate-counting formula, you can gauge the impact of each meal or snack on your blood sugar. Ultimately, counting carbohydrates enables you to keep tighter control over your blood glucose levels. If you take insulin, counting carbohydrates can help you calculate how much insulin you need to maintain your blood glucose levels.

To count carbohydrates, use these averages of grams of carbohydrate per food serving from the Joslin Diabetes Center

  1. Fat: 0
  2. Meat: 0
  3. Vegetables: 5
  4. Milk: 12
  5. Starch: 15
  6. Fruit: 15

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults, ages 19 and above, get approximately 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. However, based upon your dietary needs, your level of intake may be different. Be sure to work with your physician, dietitian or certified diabetes educator to settle on the maximum amount of carbohydrates to eat each day.

Remember, creating balanced meals composed of nutrient-rich foods doesn't have to be a bland or rote exercise. Don't put blinders on when it comes to managing carbohydrates. Take the time to stretch your imagination, experimenting with new recipes or food combinations in the kitchen.

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