Updated: Jun 15
The number #1 question I get asked by women recently diagnosed with diabetes and feeling overwhelmed is "How do I count carbs"?
Can you relate?
I understand when you are thrown into this blood sugar thing...you are forced to figure food out. Why is it that what you have been eating for years has suddenly added up to a pre-diabetes or type 2 diagnosis.
Managing diabetes is centered around lifestyle choices you make everyday, including what to eat and how much to eat, especially in how to count carbs (carbohydrates). Life keeps a woman's plate full enough, and now you are supposed to look at a plate of food and figure out how many carbs you are eating and how your blood sugar will respond.
The first step can feel frustrating, so I'm here with the facts to help you make better food choices and feel confident about what you eat.
Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs
Let’s start with what a carbohydrate is and how they are different from other foods you eat. Carbohydrates are one of the 3 macronutrients or classes of foods. The other two are protein and fat. When these 3 macronutrients are combined and eaten together, they help to balance one another in how the body absorbs them and turns this food into energy.
Your goal to manage blood sugar is knowing what foods will either help or detour how you can reach your goal levels.
Once you know what you are eating, you will better understand what carbohydrates are and how to keep track.
Carbohydrates are mainly sugars, starches, fiber:
Simple carbs or sugars - These are broken down quickly in your body to be used for energy and quickly raise blood sugar levels. Simple carbs are found naturally in table sugars, syrups, and fructose found in fruit. Simple carbs are also found in processed foods when these same simple sugars are added for sweetness.
Complex Carbs (starch) - These contain fiber and are slower to digest and be absorbed by the body for energy. Complex carbohydrates are whole foods found in nature. Examples are vegetables, nuts, seeds, potatoes, and grains such as oats, brown rice, barley, quinoa, etc.
What is Carbohydrate Counting
Now that you know the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates you can better understand how to easily count carbs. Carb counting is to measure what you plan to eat and recognizing what the carbohydrate portion of the meal is.
For example, packaged foods list the nutritional value of the 3 macronutrients that I mentioned above, per serving size. This is the easiest way to see the total carbs that a serving size contains, important to be mindful and measure the serving size.
There are many useful apps [Myfitnesspal, Glucose buddy, Mysugr] available that list foods and their carbs per serving, and this is a great way to start. Getting familiar with which foods contain carbs and how you can include them or reduce them in a meal will equip you going forward. Oftentimes you are eating the same foods, so in just a short amount of time you’ll memorize their carb count and how to factor this into your meal planning.
How Carb Counting Works
Ideally you want to choose real whole foods. Packaged foods with a label can contain hidden ingredients like sugar and make predicting your blood sugar response more difficult.
Begin by filling your plate with non starchy vegetables and then add lean protein and healthy fats to balance out your plate. Vegetables contain minimal or even zero carbs and when they are the main portion of your meal, it naturally makes counting carbs easier.
Eating a diet rich in vegetables will help you feel nourished and satisfied. If you decide to include carbs to a meal, it will be easier to measure and your blood sugar will be happier after you eat.
For example a small potato: (palm size is a perfect measuring tool)
Calories - 87
Fat - 1.5 grams
Carbs - 20 grams
Sugar - 1 gram
Fiber - 2 grams
Protein - 2 grams
When you subtract the 2 grams of fiber from the total 20 grams of carbs, your net carb equals 18 grams. This is the carb count and the net effect to your blood sugar level.
What Carb Counting Looks Like For Busy Women
At mealtime or even beforehand, it’s helpful to assess what your current blood sugar is and if you have insulin on board or oral medicine that could help cover the carbs you are about to eat.
Using a glucometer to test blood sugar levels before and after meals, should be part of your diabetes management plan. If not, ask your doctor for information about this vital tool to help you. Gathering data of how your current diet and lifestyle is effecting your blood sugar levels, will help guide you on what changes need to happen.
Knowing your starting point is very important to properly gauge what you need to eat while thinking ahead at how much energy your body will need from the food. If you plan to exercise or there will be more time until your next meal, you may need more carbs to sustain you or even require less insulin/medicine to cover the carbohydrates you ate. *Check with your doctor about how to safely measure this
A ratio of 15:1 is common, but depending how physically active and insulin sensitive you are this ratio could be higher or even lower if you exercise consistently. Your doctor often provides you with the carb count to insulin ratio, or how many units of insulin needed to cover total grams of carbs eaten.
With practice and by journaling how certain carbohydrates typically affect your blood sugar, you can make smarter choices on what and how much to eat.
How To Count Carbs
You won’t always have access to measuring tools to estimate how many carbs you are eating, so you’ll have to learn how to estimate. Experiment when you eat, remembering the serving size of the starchy or non-starchy carbs and how this affected your blood sugar level afterwards.
Don’t guess on how much you're eating, for example if you are enjoying chips and salsa, be sure to pour a serving size into a bowl rather than eating straight from a bag. These carbs can quickly add up and you can easily eat more than you intended to.
Try tracking and writing down your results, this can help you better understand how certain meals containing carbs result for you.
Begin the process of counting carbs and know there is a learning curve, be patient and remember why carb counting is so important in managing blood sugar and optimizing your health.
Soon you will get the hang of it and settle in with what you know will work, improving your health and so much more!