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Diabetes: Should you count carbohydrates?

Carbohydrate counting is one form of meal planning you can use to help manage diabetes.

If you have diabetes, you need to know about carbohydrates.

These nutrients, also called carbs, are converted into glucose by your body. While glucose is an important source of energy, it's something people with diabetes need to keep close tabs on. Blood glucose levels that are too high can put people with diabetes at risk for a variety of complications, including heart disease.

Counting the carbs you eat each day is one way you can help make sure your blood glucose levels stay in a healthy range.

Where do you find carbohydrates?

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), carbohydrates appear in three main forms: starch, sugar and dietary fiber. A wide variety of foods contain carbohydrates, including:

  • Beans.
  • Grains.
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn.
  • Fruit.
  • Dairy products.
  • Sweets and snack foods.

Is carbohydrate counting for you?

Anyone with type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes can use carbohydrate counting, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Your healthcare team can help you assess your lifestyle, goals and motivation level to determine the meal-planning tool or tools that will work best for you.

How does carbohydrate counting work?

A carbohydrate counting approach is not a specific diet but rather a way to organize your food intake.

If you choose to count carbohydrates, you:

  • Estimate how many grams of carbohydrate are in the foods you eat.
  • Add up the number of grams of carbohydrate you eat to get your total for the day.

Your healthcare team or dietitian will work with you to figure out how many carbohydrates you need each day. The number will be influenced by your weight, activity level, medications and goals.

Once you know how many carbohydrates you need to eat, choose your food and select your portion size to match.

Since carbohydrate counting is not a diet, but a meal-planning method, it is not automatically healthy, according to the ADA. You must choose healthy foods and balance your carbohydrates with protein and fat.

What's good and bad about carbohydrate counting?

Carbohydrate counting takes time, training and a certain amount of dedication. It requires lots of measuring, record-keeping and blood-glucose tracking. In addition, because of its flexibility in food choices and because sugar and fat intake are not restricted in the same way as in other plans, weight control may be a struggle for those who use this tool.

However, carbohydrate counting can:

  • Give you more food choices than other eating plans.
  • Improve blood sugar control.
  • Offer more precision in matching food and mealtime insulin.

So talk to your healthcare provider to learn if it is right for you.

Remember, keeping track of how many carbs you eat is just one dietary tool you can use to help manage diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other methods include a visual portion-sizing tool called the plate method and the glycemic index, which rates a carbohydrate-containing food's potential for raising blood sugar. You might even try using a combination of these methods to help plan your meals.

Learn more about diabetes in the Diabetes health topic center.

Reviewed 9/22/2021

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