How to Count Carbs

Knowing how many carbohydrates 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.

Carbohydrates are the macronutrient that affects blood sugar the most. Because people with diabetes have difficultly managing their blood sugars, they often benefit from eating a modified carbohydrate diet. For those people with diabetes who take insulin, adequate carbohydrate counting is a critical skill because carbohydrates are matched to insulin to control blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrate counting may seem overwhelming when you first because, but the process will get easier and faster once you get the hang of it. Take advantage of online tools and resources to make the process more efficient.

Connect With Your Healthcare Provider

In order to count carbs, you should have a target or a goal in mind. The amount of carbohydrate you should consume per day will depend on a variety of factors, such as your calorie needs (for weight maintenance or loss), activity level, your typical eating pattern, food likes or dislikes, and your medical condition.

Most Americans consume around 45%–65% of their calories from carbohydrates, but this amount isn't ideal for everyone. For example, people with type 2 diabetes may benefit from eating a consistent lower carbohydrate diet tailored for weight loss. 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 those 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 which can help you to stay motivated if or when the process becomes frustrating.

Gather Tools to Measure Food

It may sound obvious, but you can't 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 and a kitchen scale (digital scales are easiest to use).

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 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a list of foods that provide about 15 grams of carbohydrate. They include:

  • Bread: One slice
  • Cereal: 3/4 cup of dry or 1/2 cup cooked
  • Fruit: 1/2 cup of canned or juice, one small piece of fresh (such as a small apple or orange)
  • Jelly: 1 tablespoon
  • Pasta: 1/3 cup
  • Pinto beans: 1/2 cup
  • Rice: 1/3 cup
  • Starchy vegetables: 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes, cooked corn, peas, or lima beans
  • Tortilla: One 6-inch

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. Non-starchy vegetables are part of a well-balanced meal plan and contain very little carbohydrate, about 5 grams is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.

An easy way to portion control your meals, while also getting adequate nutrition, is to practice the plate method. Aim to make 1/2 of your plate non-starchy vegetables, 1/4 lean protein, and 1/4 a complex carbohydrate such as a whole grain, legume, or starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes.

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

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, 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.

Use Online Resources

There will be some foods that do not contain a Nutrition Facts label such as fresh fruits and vegetables and meat from the butcher. For these foods, you'll have to use other resources to get data about carbohydrate content. Online resources are generally the 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 or consider using a smartphone app as many are widely available and most are free.

Apps or 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.

Carb Counting 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 if you are counting the carbohydrates in vegetables it can be tricky because of irregular shapes and different ways of cutting and cooking them.

Fruit

Fruits have a huge variation in the number of carbohydrates 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 lowest amount of carbohydrate per serving and high fiber content, while some tropical fruits and dried fruits have the most carbohydrate per serving.

Fruits tend to be even more irregularly-shaped than vegetables, so sometimes you might need to weigh them. Another issue is that the average size of many fruits has grown over the years. On average 4–5 ounces of whole fruit, such as an apple, pear, orange, 2 kiwis, a 4-ounce slice of melon, or 4 ounces of pineapple contains 15 grams of carbohydrate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides a helpful downloadable resource for counting carbs in fruit.

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.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, a half cup serving of mashed potatoes contains about 15 grams of carb per serving. The serving size of starchy vegetables and size will also vary the carbohydrate count. For example, thick cut potatoe fries will have more carbohydrates per piece as opposed to thinner sliced ones. In general, one 3-ounce potato contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate.

Grains and Pasta

Diabetes Care and Education Specialists often use 15 grams of carbohydrate as a measure for reference. In this instance, 15 grams is often referred to as one carbohydrate choice. This doesn't mean that you can only eat 15 grams of carbohydrate at one serving but if you are using 15 grams as a reference and you are looking to eat 45 grams of carbohydrate in a meal, for example, then you can have three carbohydrate choices at one meal.

It is also important to understand dry measurements versus cooked measurements. For example, 2 ounces of dry pasta yields one cup cooked which equates to about 45 grams of carbohydrates.

Whole grains provide better nutritional value than refined grains. Check out the carb counts for select grains:

  • Amaranth: 46 grams per cup, cooked
  • Corn Meal (including grits, polenta, and popcorn): 47 grams per cup, cooked
  • Oats (including several types of cooked oats): 28 grams per cup, cooked
  • Quinoa: 39 grams per cup, cooked
  • Rice: 37 grams per cup, cooked

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.

Here are some rough estimates, based on roughly 15 grams per serving:

  • Biscuit: Half of a regular-size, or one small (2 inches in diameter)
  • Bread: One slice (note that these days many loaves of bread have larger slices than the standard size, so be sure to check the label)
  • Brownie or cake: One small piece without frosting (2-inch square)
  • Crackers: Four to six
  • English muffin: One half
  • Muffin: One-third of a large muffin, or one small muffin (2½ inches across)
  • Tortilla: One 6-inch, flour or corn
  • Vanilla wafers: Three wafers

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. 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 provide healthy fats and fiber. Most nuts and seeds are low in carbohydrates. A quarter-cup serving of nuts, such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and Brazil nuts contain around 3–10 grams of carbohydrates. Cashews contain the most (around 10 grams) whereas, pumpkin seeds contain only 3 grams.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind 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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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Carbohydrates — Part of a Healthful Diabetes Diet. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Updated September 2020

  2. Diabetes Meal Planning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated  April 2, 2020

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