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Starter Guide to Carbohydrate Counting for Type 1 Diabetes

*Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services. This blog is meant to provide general information for educational purposes only. The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for medical care and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.*

Cover page with text: starter guide to carbohydrate counting for type 1 diabetes

Carb counting is an essential part of managing type 1 diabetes because it allows you to take your insulin based on the specific amount of carbohydrates you eat during your meals and snacks. When it comes to calculating your insulin needs for meals, it can be quite a guessing game if you don’t know how many carbs you are eating. Carb counting gives you the chance at keeping your blood sugars in range after eating. If you are new to carb counting or need a refresher, this blog will cover all that you need to know about carbohydrate counting for type 1 diabetes.

How to find carbohydrates on a nutrition label

Finding carbohydrates on a nutrition label can feel overwhelming at first. However, once you know where to look and what to look for, it can become a skill you are confident in that will help you manage your blood sugar. The food label is where you want to look.

Food labels contain a lot of information that you want to look at and understand.

  • Servings per container: This lists how many serving sizes are in the entire container or package. For example, if you have a package of crackers that has 10 servings of 10 crackers, the whole package will contain about 100 crackers total.

  • Serving Size: This is the amount of the food upon which all the nutrition information is based. In our example, all of the calories, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars in a serving are based on this portion of 10 crackers. If you eat less than 10, you will get less than listed of each nutrient and if you eat more than 10, you will get more of each nutrient listed. That is important to keep in mind so that you are accurate in your carbohydrate counting.

  • Total Carbohydrates: This is the number you will use to count your carbohydrates. It includes all types of carbs in the food (sugar, starch, and fiber).

  • Dietary Fiber: This is the amount of carbohydrate that will not be digested or will be partially digested, depending on the type of fiber. Fiber helps slow down blood sugar spikes and is necessary for a healthy digestive system.

  • Total Sugars: This is the amount of sugar overall in the food. It includes both natural and added sugars. For example, dates in a protein bar are natural sugar, while glucose syrup in the bar is added sugar. Natural sugar usually has some fiber, vitamins, and minerals, such as would be in a piece of fruit or glass of milk.

  • Includes g Added Sugars: This is the amount of sugar in the food that has been added in addition to any natural sugar during the food’s processing. This sugar is typically void of the fiber and healthful nutrients compound found in natural sugars and it spikes your blood sugar quicker. Aim to limit your added sugars and eat other macronutrients like fat and protein along with it to help slow digestion.

Should you count total carbs or net carbs?

It depends! Everyone’s body is going to digest and absorb different foods, well differently! There may be foods that you need to use total carbs, net carbs, or somewhere in between. The American Diabetes Association has recommendations for what carbs you count if you have type 1 diabetes. If you use an insulin-to-carb ratio, you can subtract half the amount of fiber listed under the total carbohydrates if there are at least 5 grams of fiber in a serving. When using an ICR, you can also subtract half the amount of sugar alcohols listed if there is a total of 10 grams sugar alcohol or more per serving. These methods allow you to figure out how much insulin to take based on how much carbohydrate your body is absorbing. At the end of the day, it may take some trial and error to figure out whether or not you should be using total or net carbs for different foods.

How accurate are nutrition panels for carb counting?

Although manufacturers try to present truthful nutrition label information to consumers, the labels are unfortunately not completely accurate 100% of the time. This can be due to differences in manufacturing technique or location, the time of year and method with which ingredients are grown, harvested, produced, how the food is cooked, or small differences in product weight or composition. The FDA labeling requirements are created to “guide the general population” to be informed about the foods they buy and eat. Those with special dietary needs, such as people with diabetes, can suffer from the impact of the 20% margin of error on nutrition labels allowed by the FDA. Therefore, it's important to be conscious of the possibility of error and be in tune with your body. Food labels are a great starting point, but they aren’t the end all be all in managing your blood sugar.

How to count basic carbohydrates

Just like any new skill, it takes time and dedication. In the beginning, carb counting may feel time consuming and energy draining, but it gets easier! Your confidence and accuracy while measuring your foods will improve over time. Trust me if you eat the same bread every day, you will have that carb count memorized by the end of the week! Aside from just reading labels, measuring cups and food scales can be helpful tools for carb counting accuracy.

Measuring Cups for Carbohydrate Counting

There are pros and cons of using measuring cups for carbohydrate counting. The pros are that it is fairly accurate and easily accessible everyday kitchen gadget. However, there can be limitations since measuring cups measure the volume of dry or liquid ingredients. For example, it is difficult to get an accurate measurement for penne pasta in a measuring cup because there will be air gaps between the pasta. But, you will be able to easily utilize measuring cups for something like baking flour or juice. Keep in mind that some foods may be easier to measure than others!

Food Scales for Carbohydrate Counting

If a measuring cup won’t cut it, food scales are another way to obtain a carb count. Food scales are great because they measure using the weight of the food carb counting is more accurate and reliable. A nutrition label will often list the serving size along with a measurement in grams. For example, a label may read something like 10 crackers (20 grams). But, if you crackers are broken into tiny pieces, it can be difficult to figure out how many pieces are equivalent to 10 crackers. This is where a food scale can come in handy. You simply check the weight of the food to find the carb count instead. There are even food scales that will automatically carb count for you like this one by Greater Goods.

How to Carb Count without a Nutrition Label

Sometimes, there is no nutrition label available on a food or at a restaurant. Not to worry! You can still carb count without a nutrition label. This can be helpful for whole natural foods that don’t come in a package, such as a banana or apple. It can also be helpful for dining at a local restaurant that doesn’t have a chain website with nutrition facts listed. It can also be helpful with mixed dishes or foods that you don’t have access to see the package, such as store-bought cookies set out on a platter at a party or your grandma’s green bean casserole.

Use Reference Foods to Estimate Carb Counts

A fairly accurate way to count carbs is to use reference foods as an estimate. For example, if you are at a local authentic Mexican restaurant eating a chicken and cheese enchilada and there is no nutrition facts posted online or on the menu, you could look up the nutrition facts for a chicken and cheese burrito with a similar size and similar ingredients on the website of a Mexican chain restaurant. If you are having your mom’s tuna casserole, you can look up some tuna casserole nutrition facts on calorie websites or apps and find one with similar ingredients to use as your carb estimate. This is also true of whole foods, such as an orange. Simply look up a reference food (a small, medium, or large orange, depending on the size of the one you are eating).

Estimate Carb Counts Using Your Hands

You can use your hands to estimate carb counts. This comes in handy when using reference food carb counts and needing to know what serving size the reference food is to compare to what you are eating. It also is helpful when you don’t have access to any reference foods (perhaps you are without Wi-Fi) and can estimate a portion and know the approximate carb count. A 3 oz serving of protein is about the palm of the hand. One cup is about one fist (such as for veggies), ½ cup is about a cupped hand (such as a grain item like pasta), and a serving of fats is about the size of the thumb (such as for peanut butter or salad dressing, and butter is slightly less at about the size of a finger). You can learn the general carb counts in some of the items you frequently eat according to these serving sizes and also use these visuals to compare your food to reference foods.

Carb Counting apps

You don’t have to figure out carb counting all alone. You don’t have to do it with a calculator, pencil, or an eraser that you carry around everywhere. There are lots of apps that are super helpful and convenient for carb counting and will help you be successful!

Perhaps an app isn’t cutting it for you? Don’t worry, you can still master the art of carb counting to manage your blood sugar. Join the “Eating Essentials for Type 1 Diabetes” course today to learn the strategies, skills, and tools to manage your blood sugar while eating the foods you love!


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