Easy & Practical Tips for Counting Carbs Accurately

By: Hope S. Warshaw, R.D., CDE  |  Diabetic Living Magazine

You can get better at nailing your carbohydrate counts when following a diabetic diet. Hone your carb-counting skills at home with these tried-and-true tips, then eat restaurant meals with confidence.

Count Carbs More Accurately

Count Carbs More Accurately

Count the grams of carbohydrate you eat. It’s not always a piece of cake (or pie), right? Fortunately, help is near. To dig up practical pointers, we’ve reached out to people with firsthand experience. Learn and more accurately estimate the carbohydrate in the foods you commonly eat and recipes you love with help from these tried-and-true tips for eating at home and dining out.

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Eating In

Eating In

The best place to practice your carb-counting skills is in the privacy of your home. This way you can feel comfortable learning the numbers, compiling your favorite foods, and taking time to improve your health. Slides 3-9 are tips from people who have learned to juggle the numbers at home. To skip to the tips for helping count carbs while eating out, go to Slides 10-16.

Estimate Portions at Home

Estimate Portions at Home

Face it. You'll have to do a lot of estimating. The better you train your eyes to estimate portions, the more precise you'll be. Keep your eyes honest by double-checking your portions.

"Once a month I put my oatmeal, cold cereal, pasta, rice, and other starches I eat in my usual serving bowl or plate. But before I take a bite, I put it in a measuring cup to check up on my estimates," says Amanda DiMatteo, PWD type 1. Amanda finds that without measuring tools, her portions grow.

Keep Measuring Tools Handy

Keep Measuring Tools Handy

To increase your inkling to reach for your measuring cups and spoons and food scale, keep them on the counter. The results? Better after-meal blood sugar results. Check blood sugar before eating and again two hours after the first bite to see how measuring helps you fine-tune carb counts.

"I took this advice from a dietitian and noticed how much more I use them and how much more accurate my carb counts were," DiMatteo says.

Be a Label Reader

Be a Label Reader

Your quickest, cheapest, and most accurate carb count is from a Nutrition Facts label, which is on many packaged foods," says Toby Smithson, R.D., CDE, PWD type 1. Focus on total carbohydrate grams and not on sugars. Sugars are factored into the total carbohydrate grams.

The total carb number is reasonably accurate, considering the amount ingredients can vary from batch to batch and labeling regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The serving sizes on Nutrition Facts labels are called reference servings—they're standardized and considered reasonable amounts to eat.

Pick Produce by Size

Pick Produce by Size

Fruits, potatoes, and other starchy produce come in a wide range of sizes. The difference between a small and large apple can easily be 15 grams of carb. Take a few minutes on occasion to weigh pieces of the produce you buy and write down the weight on a piece of paper or in your food journal. When at home, look up their carb counts based on the weight. Make an effort to choose similar sizes when you shop.

Build Your Food Database

Build Your Food Database

Put together a personal food database, which could be a journal or a notebook or an online database, of your favorite things to eat and foods that make up your go-to meals.

How to build your food database:

1. Make a list of foods you regularly eat. Think breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Look at what's in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and on your shopping list.

2. Think about portions. Record the amounts or portion sizes you usually eat, and look up the carb counts of the foods in these portions.

3. Combine the foods into meals and add up the total carb counts.

4. Include new foods as you add them to your repertoire.

"My carb database, which I keep on nutritiondata.com, contains just the foods I eat. No need to be bothered with thousands of foods I'll never eat," says Susan Haynes, PWD type 2.

Rack Up Recipe Counts

Rack Up Recipe Counts

After building your food database, collect all of the recipes you love and figure out carb counts for them.

"Pile up the recipes, carve out an hour in front of the computer, and get the job done," says Haynes, who now has the carb counts for her old and new favorites, before and after being diagnosed with diabetes, in her personal food database.

Be Mindful of Mixed Foods

Be Mindful of Mixed Foods

When facing homemade, starch-heavy combination dishes full of noodles or potatoes -- including casseroles, chicken pot pie, chili, and pasta salads—the counting gets tricky. For foods stocked with carbohydrate sources, you'll be near the bull's-eye if you count 15 grams of carb for 1/2 cup; 30 grams for 1 cup. Measure level cups and gently spoon food into the cup (don't pack it). If it's a recipe you make regularly, take the time to add up the carbs precisely.

For starch-heavy mixed dishes like casseroles and premixed pasta dishes, use this easy carb-conversion chart:

1/4 cup = 7 g carb.
1/3 cup = 10 g carb.
1/2 cup = 15 g carb.
1 cup = 30 g carb.

Eating Out

Eating Out

A general guideline for the amount of carbohydrate to eat per meal is 40-60 grams for women and 55-75 grams for men. But with the way restaurant serving sizes vary, you could be tempted by far more grams of carbohydrate than you need. This guide to dining out with diabetes will help you count the carbs at your next meal out on the town.

Uncover Hidden Carbs

Uncover Hidden Carbs

High blood sugar after Chinese, Thai, or sushi? Demystify these menu items by looking at the recipes (in books or online) and their nutrient counts. You'll discover there are sugars and starches in marinades, sauces, and rice.

Become a Food Sleuth

Become a Food Sleuth

Mary Ellen Wolf, R.N., CDE, and wife of a PWD type 1, says her husband has honed a secret weapon. In sit-down restaurants where portions are unpredictable, he starts counting carbs before he even reaches his table. As he waits to be seated or as he is escorted to his table, he looks at plated meals served to other guests. He notices the portions and types of foods available. He then makes mental notes of what to order or what to split with his dining companion.

Avoid Pizza Perils

Avoid Pizza Perils

Whether you are taking it out or eating it in a restaurant, figuring the carbs in pizza is a challenge, from the crust to the sauce. The good news is there are plenty of carb counts for pizza to gauge your estimates, including frozen (look on the box) and chain restaurants (look them up online). But before taking your first bite, check the width of the slice you're about to eat, as well as the thickness of the crust and sauce.

Count Carbohydrate On the Go

Count Carbohydrate On the Go

Thumbing through a thick book to get carb counts on the road is a thing of the past. Now an endless supply of websites and smartphone apps is at your fingertips. Before you buy, search your options and remember that the depth of the database isn't always the most important aspect. Opt for ease.

"Many apps require a lot of manual data input and can be burdensome to use," says Amy Tenderich, PWD type 1 and blogger at healthline.com/diabetesmine. "But it's worth it if you're passionate about improving your carb-counting accuracy."

Keep Your Hands Handy

Keep Your Hands Handy

With your hands, you've got a set of measuring tools by your side. "While not exact, these approximations are better than a guess," says Mary Ellen Wolf, R.N., CDE, and wife of a PWD type 1.

• loose fist = 1 cup

• palm of hand = 3 ounces

• two fingers lengthwise = 1 ounce

• tip of thumb to first knuckle = 1 teaspoon

• tip of thumb to second knuckle = 1 tablespoon

Free Carb Counting Resources

Free Carb Counting Resources

If you want access to all of the best food databases, resources, and smartphone apps, look no further! We've compiled a list of our favorite database tools and smartphone apps to have at your fingertips wherever and whenever you need them. Enjoy!

Best Database Tools and Smart-Phone Apps

Related:
The Best and Worst Fruits to Eat If You Have Diabetes
Best Foods for Diabetes