Because carbohydrates raise blood sugar, managing your carbs is key to managing your diabetes. One way to do it is through carbohydrate counting. Knowing how many carbs you can have throughout the day—and following those guidelines consistently every day—will set your blood sugar levels on an even keel, make you feel more energized, and help you avoid complications of diabetes.
Most of the foods you eat—from milk and fruit to breads and grains—contain carbohydrates. There’s no way to avoid them, and you wouldn’t want to. Carbs serve as the main fuel source for your body. The trick is to avoid eating too many carbs in one day or at one sitting.
When you eat carbs, your body breaks the food down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. That triggers your pancreas to release the hormone insulin, which helps move the glucose into your cells for energy. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin your body needs to help convert the food to energy.
When you have diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or your body can’t use the insulin to move the glucose into the cells. Starved cells make you feel tired and sluggish. And chronically high blood sugar levels boost the production of free radicals and lower your immunity, on top of other negative effects.
The key, then, is to gain better control over your blood sugar levels by learning just how many carbohydrates you should eat throughout the day. Here’s what to do.
1. Determine your activity level factor
This is based on your gender and your level of physical activity. The more active you are, the more calories—and carbs—you can eat. If you’re a couch potato, rate yourself “sedentary.” If you exercise occasionally, rate yourself “lightly active.” If you exercise regularly, you’re “active.” If you exercise strenuously almost every day, you’re “very active.”
Activity Level Female Male
sedentary 12 13
lightly active 14 15
active 16 17
very active 19 19
2. Calculate your daily calorie needs
Multiply your weight by your activity level factor to determine the number of calories you should eat a day to maintain your current weight. (To lose a pound a week, you’ll need to cut about 500 calories a day.)
(A.L. factor) (weight) (calorie need)
For example: A 140-pound woman with a light activity level needs 1,960 calories a day to maintain her current weight.
If you’re trying to lose weight, keep in mind that women shouldn’t eat fewer than 1,200 calories a day, and men shouldn’t eat fewer than 1,500 calories a day.
3. Determine how many carbs you need
The chart below assumes you need 50 percent of your calories from carbs. (Work with a registered dietitian to determine the best carb targets for you. According to the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association, carbohydrates can vary from 40 to 55 percent of total calories.)
Carb choices are foods that contain about 15 grams of carbs per serving. For example, 8 ounces of milk has 12 grams of carbs per serving and would count as one carb choice. You’ll find the number of carbs listed on nutrition labels of your foods.
Calories Grams of Carbs # of Choices
1,200 150 10
1,500 185 13
1,800 220 15
2,000 250 17
2,200 275 19
2,400 300 20
2,800 350 23
3,000 375 25
3,200 400 27
3,400 425 28
4. Look at the fiber content of your food
If the food you plan to eat contains more than 5 grams of fiber, subtract the number of fiber grams from the total grams of carbs. For example, if a can of chili contains 24 grams of carbs and 9 grams of fiber per cup, count the serving as 15 grams of carbs, or one carb choice.
5. Spread your carb choices throughout your meals
If you want to eat five carb choices for breakfast, you could have 4 ounces of orange juice (one carb choice), two slices of whole wheat toast (two carb choices), 3⁄4 cup of Cheerios with 8 ounces of milk (two carb choices), and a cup of black coffee (which has no carbs).
6. Check your blood sugar
Check your blood sugar before your meal and two hours after your meal and write down the results, along with what you ate. Making a record of what you eat and the way your blood sugar responds will help you make the best food decisions. Everyone’s body will respond differently to the amount of carbs eaten, so it’s essential that you find out how many carbs work for you throughout the day. Checking your blood sugar isn’t necessarily something you have to do every day forever, but do it for several days to get a feel for how your body responds to your meals. Your target blood sugar levels should fall within these ranges:
Fasting or before your meals:
90 to 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)
Two hours after the start of your meal:
less than 180 mg/dl
At bedtime: 100 to 140 mg/dl
7. Make adjustments
If your blood sugar levels are too high two hours after a meal, try getting some exercise or adjusting your meal. Take a walk after eating to see if the levels go down, or trying taking out a carb choice. If that doesn’t work, consult your health-care provider. Perhaps a medication adjustment will help.
8. Stay consistent
Eat your meals at around the same time every day. Skipping meals or varying the amount of carbs you eat at different meals from day to day will make it harder for you to control your blood sugar levels.