How to Count Carbs

Knowing how much carbohydrate you are eating is vital on a low-carb diet. One way to do this is to count grams of carbohydrate, a practice commonly called "carb counting." 

Carb counting is often practiced by people who are managing a medical condition such as type 1 or type 2 diabetes. But many other people use carb counting to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight or reach health and wellness goals.

Carb counting may seem tedious when you first begin. But the process gets faster and easier once you get the hang of it. Take advantage of online tools and resources to make the process more efficient.

Carb counting may be used by people to manage a medical condition such as type 2 diabetes or it may be used by people trying to reach health or wellness goals.

Step One: Connect with Your Healthcare Provider

In order to count carbs, you'll want to have a target or a goal in mind. Your healthcare provider may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian with expertise in your medical condition or in reaching your wellness goal.

Together you and your provider can determine the right number of carbs for you to consume throughout the day. Additionally, an R.D. can help you to learn more about foods that are high in carbs and foods that are low in carbs. They can also help you learn to find the healthiest foods within each category.

Lastly, your healthcare provider can tell you how counting carbs will affect your overall health. This information can help you to stay motivated if or when the process becomes frustrating.

Step Two: Gather Tools to Measure Food

It may sound obvious, but you determine the amount of carbohydrate in a portion of food unless you know how much of the food you are going to consume.

Measuring tools are essential for this vital step, especially when you first start out. It is very common for people to think they know about how much a tablespoon or half a cup or six inches is, but often their estimates are inaccurate.

Handy tools include measuring cups and spoons, a ruler or tape measure, and a kitchen scale (digital scales are easiest to use). Keep your tools handy so that they are easy to grab when you need them.

Step Three: Learn to Estimate

You won't always have access to your measuring tools when you eat. So you should learn as much as you can about foods that contain carbs and the amount of carbohydrate that they provide.

The National Institutes of Health provides a list of foods that provide about 15 grams of carbohydrate. They include:

  • One slice of bread
  • One 6-inch tortilla
  • 1/3 cup of pasta
  • 1/3 cup of rice
  • 1/2 cup of canned or fresh fruit or fruit juice or one small piece of fresh fruit, such as a small apple or orange
  • 1/2 cup of pinto beans
  • 1/2 cup of starchy vegetables such as mashed potatoes, cooked corn, peas, or lima beans
  • 3/4 cup of dry cereal or 1/2 cup cooked cereal
  • One tablespoon of jelly

You'll also want to make sure that you learn about foods that provide zero carbs. Balancing carbohydrate foods with carbohydrate-free foods will help you to plan meals and stay within your target zones.

Foods that contain little to no carbohydrates include meat, fish, and poultry, nuts, oils, fats, and some types of cheese.

Step Four: Read Food Labels

When you are counting carbs, food labels are your friends. The Nutrition Facts label clearly states how much carbohydrate is in each food.

To make sure you use the label properly, you'll want to check not only the grams of carbohydrate provided but also the serving size. The amount of food you consume may be more or less than the serving size listed and this will affect the number of carbs you consume.

For example, if you consume two slices of bread and the serving size listed is one slice you'll have to double the number of grams listed in order to know how many total carbs you are consuming.

Step Five: Use Online Resources

There will be some foods that do not contain a Nutrition Facts label. Fresh fruits and vegetables and meat from the butcher, for example, will not come with a handy label.

For these foods, you'll have to use other resources to get data about carbohydrate content. Online resources are generally easiest to use and are updated more often.

One smart resource is the USDA Food Composition Database. This searchable database provides nutrition facts, including grams of carbohydrate, fiber, starch, and sugars in foods sold throughout the country. You'll find specific brands of food products as well as general categories.

You can also use the tool to search by nutrient. For example, using the "Nutrient Search" function you can search for breakfast cereals listed by the number of carbs in each.

In addition to the database, the USDA also provides consumers with Carbohydrate Counting and Exchange Lists. You may find a tool there that works better for you.

Online resources such as the USDA Food Composition Database are helpful tools when carb counting and might be more accurate than printed resources which are not updated as often.

Carbs Counting Tips by Food Group

Each different type of food present different challenges and opportunities when counting carbs. Use these tips to include as many healthy foods as possible in your diet.

Non-Starchy Vegetables

Although non-starchy vegetables have some carbohydrate, they don't have a lot, and these foods generally provide substantial nutritional benefits. Nonstarchy vegetables include dark and leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower, and green beans.

On a low-carb diet, these vegetables take the place of starchier foods. In fact, many people on a low-carb diet will double or triple the amount of these vegetables at mealtime. People on moderate-carb diets sometimes don't count them at all.

However, carb counting in vegetables can be tricky because of irregular shapes and different ways of cutting and cooking them

For example, asparagus spears vary from very thin to very thick. A medium bell pepper might be three inches tall or four. When cooking, it can be handy to have your tape measure handy to get as accurate a measurement as possible.

Fruit

Fruits have a huge variation in how much carbohydrate they contain. For example, a half-cup serving of raspberries contains about 7.5 grams of carb. But raisins, contain 34 grams for a quarter cup.

In general, berries have the least sugar, and tropical and dried fruits have the most.

Fruits tend to be even more irregularly-shaped than vegetables, so sometimes you might need to measure. Another issue is that the average size of many fruits has grown over the years.

For example, a medium banana is about seven inches long. Many that you find at your market are larger. A medium apple is three inches across, which most people would think of as small.

Beans and Starchy Vegetables

If you have room in your carb allotment, beans, and starchier vegetables are an excellent choice because they tend to be very nutrient-dense compared to other higher-carb foods.

In addition, beans have a lot of slowly-digested carbohydrates and resistant starch, particularly if you soak and cook them yourself rather than buying canned beans.

A half-cup of beans contains approximately 15 grams of carb, with the exception of soybeans.​

Starchy vegetables vary in their carb content and some numbers might surprise you. For example, mashed potatoes contain about 15 grams of carb per serving

Grains and Pasta

According to the American Diabetes Association "If you are going to eat grain foods, pick the ones that are the most nutritious. Choose whole grains."

Diabetes educators use 15 grams of carbohydrate as a measure of serving size. For grains, this is about half a cup of cooked grains, except for rice and pasta, where a serving is 1/3 of a cup.

Check out the carb counts for other grains:

Baked Goods

The only real way to find the amount of carbohydrate in cookies, cakes, pies, bread, and other baked goods is to read the label and pay very close attention to the serving size.

Below are some rough estimates, based on the 15 gram per serving amount :

  • One slice bread (note that these days many breads have larger slices than the standard size, so be sure to check the label)
  • One 6-inch tortilla, flour or corn
  • Half of a biscuit, or one small (2 inches in diameter)
  • Half of an English muffin
  • Half of a large bagel
  • One-third of a large muffin, or one small muffin (2½ inches across)
  • Four to six crackers
  • Three vanilla wafers
  • One small brownie or cake without frosting (2-inch square)

Dairy Foods

One cup of cow's milk contains 11 to 12 grams of carbohydrate which comes from sugar (lactose).

In almost every other form of dairy product, some of the lactose is removed either through fermentation (yogurt, cheese) or because cream is used more than milk. Because bacteria eat the lactose, there may even be less carb in yogurt than the label says. However, yogurt with added ingredients (such as fruit or other sweeteners) the carb count goes up.

In general, cheese is a low-carb food. One ounce of cheese usually has between a half a gram and one gram of carbohydrate, although processed cheeses can have more. 

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are great low-carb foods because they often have a lot of the same nutrients as whole grains for a fraction of the carbohydrate, plus healthy fats and often more fiber.

Other than chestnuts and cashews (which are starchier), most nuts and seeds have between two and four grams of net carb per ounce. 

A Word From Verywell

Remember that you will experience a learning curve when you begin to count carbs. Be patient and remember why carb counting is important. Eventually, you will get the hang of it and you'll instinctively know which foods to choose to enjoy a satisfying and healthy diet.

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