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Carbohydrates (carbs) from the food you eat are broken down by the body into glucose (sugar) to use for energy. If you eat more carbohydrates than your body can use, your blood sugar can climb to an unhealthy level. Keeping track of how many carbs you eat—counting carbohydrates—and checking your blood sugar levels before and after meals will let you know if you are eating too many carbohydrates compared to your insulin level.

Learning to balance your carbohydrate intake with your insulin needs will help you manage your blood sugar. To do this, you and your doctor will need to determine how much insulin you need to “cover” a certain amount of carbohydrates.

4 tips for easy carb counting

Just about anyone can learn the basics of carbohydrate counting in a short time. Here are a few tips that can help speed your learning:

Tip 1: Gather a few tools that contain the facts you need.

You need to know which foods have carbs and how much they contain. Most foods sold at a grocery store have the Nutrition Facts printed directly on their packaging. The labels show how much Total Carbohydrate is in a single serving of the food. If you eat out, you’ll need details about those foods, too. Most restaurant chains have nutrition brochures, although most local restaurants do not. Exchange lists can help, too. They show an average amount of carbs for standard servings of many foods. If you need even more information, look for books that contain carb counts.

Tip 2: Learn only the foods you eat.

You don’t need to know about the carbohydrates in ALL foods, just in the foods you eat. Many people eat the same foods over and over. Start with the foods you eat most often, or with the ones you enjoy the most. You can use this helpful sheet to make a list of these foods, and then determine how many carbs are in the portion size that you usually eat for each. Knowing the carb counts for the foods on your list is a great start.

Tip 3: Measure or estimate how much you eat.

If you eat more than a single serving of a particular food, you will need to make that adjustment in your carb count. Some foods are easy to count, like bread. The label shows a clear serving size—1 slice. But the labels of some foods show a measured serving size, such as 1 cup or a half cup, or it may list the serving size in grams (g). In those cases, you will need to measure or estimate. A digital kitchen scale might be useful for weighing a serving in grams. It’s certainly much easier to measure at home than in a restaurant!

Some people become very good at estimating. If you are going to estimate, remember this “handy” tip: a fist is about 1 cup in volume. Ball up your fist and lay it next to your plate. Ask yourself, Is that pile of rice more or less than a cup? You can adjust the portion size accordingly, or adjust your carb count to reflect how much you are actually eating.

Tip 4: Practice, practice, practice!

Write down everything you plan to eat. Pick out the foods that have carbs. Measure or estimate how much you will eat of each one. Look up the carb value on a nutrition label, in a book, or use the list of “Favorite Foods” you made. Do this for a couple of days. Once you have learned how to count carbs, you can start looking at your blood sugar levels before and after meals. That will show you whether the foods you are eating match well with how much insulin your body makes or how much insulin you are taking.

Carb counting for recipes

Once you learn how to do it, counting carbohydrates in foods that have the nutrition information printed on their labels will probably seem easy. But how do you count carbs in recipes or prepared foods? In this situation, it may be easiest to look at the carbohydrate counts for individual ingredients that make up a particular food. For example, if you are eating a sandwich, you will need to count the carbohydrates for the bread (both slices) and for each item that goes on the sandwich, including condiments. At first, you will probably want to measure the portions of everything that you put on your sandwich so you will know how the amounts you are using measure up to a true serving size.

For other foods that may contain many ingredients, such as a casserole, or for foods that you did not prepare for yourself, there are books available to help. There are also cookbooks and computer software programs that will give you the counts for many different types of food.

Just remember—there are many resources available to help you. Carb counting is a great method for diabetes meal planning, and the more successful you are at accurately counting carbohydrates, the better you can be at managing your diabetes.