Counting carbohydrates

Counting carbohydrates is an important tool for determining your insulin bolus when you eat.  This gives you greater flexibility than having to match your food intake to a set dose of insulin! 

Let’s take a look at why we count carbohydrates and review the basics.

The basics

Food provides us with calories which come from three major nutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates.  Also provided are vitamins and minerals, but these micronutrients do not supply calories.

Carbohydrate is the nutrient that raises the blood glucose the most and the fastest.  In fact, almost all of the carbohydrates that we eat will end up as glucose in our bloodstream within approximately 1 to 1½ hours.  This is about the time the insulin from our food bolus will be working the hardest (peaking).

Of course some carbohydrates will enter the bloodstream faster than others. For example, fruit juice takes only minutes, whereas other foods like pizza may take much longer.

Balancing your carbohydrate intake with the appropriate amount of bolus insulin will help keep your blood glucose on track after eating.  To accomplish this, you need to know what foods contain carbohydrates and be able to estimate how many grams of carbohydrate you are eating at each meal and snack.

How much carbohydrate?

It is important to consume enough carbohydrate in your diet to fuel your brain, liver and muscles with energy.  If these sources of energy do not have enough sugar stored, you are at greater risk for low blood sugar. You will then end up taking the carbohydrate that you should have taken to begin with! 

You also need to take enough carbohydrate to provide fuel for exercise and daily activities such as gardening and shopping.

The list below shows you the amounts of carbohydrate needed in different situations.  Your dietitian will help you determine how much carbohydrate you require.

Daily carbohydrate needs

  • Minimum RDA (Recommended Daily Intake): 130 grams per day minimum
    – Pregnancy: 175 grams per day minimum
  • Average Woman: 180-230 grams per day
  • Average Man: 220-330 grams per day
  • Active: - avg. 1 hour cardio/day: 4-5 g/kg body weight per day
    - avg. 2 hours cardio/day: 5-6 g/kg body weight per day

Foods with carbohydrate

Many foods contain carbohydrates. In general, carbohydrates are found in the following:

  • Starches (bread, cereal, rice, beans/lentils and pasta) and starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes, winter squash and peas)
  • Fruit and fruit juices
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Sugar and foods made with sugar (candy, baked goods, pop, syrups, etc.)

There are two approaches to counting carbohydrates:

  1. Carbohydrate Grams
  2. Carbohydrate Choices (one choice is approximately 15grams)

Using carbohydrate grams is the more accurate of the two methods and it fits easily with using an Insulin:Carbohydrate Ratio (I:C). Many people, especially those already familiar with carbohydrate choices, use a combination of both methods.

There are several tools to assist with carbohydrate counting including:

Protein and fat

In general, foods with large amounts of protein, especially those with fat, will slow your digestion so that the carbohydrates enter the blood stream slower.  Also large amounts of fat in a meal can cause your body to use insulin less efficiently. 

Healthy sources of protein are:

  • Chicken and turkey- no skin
  • Fish- 2-3 times per week
  • Lean beef and pork-fat removed
  • Peanut butter
  • Low fat cheese or cottage cheese
  • Soya products e.g. tofu, veggie burgers
  • Legumes e.g. kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils

Healthy sources of fat:

  • Oil- olive and canola oil
  • Non-hydrogenated margarine
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocado

Consider Canada’s Food Guide Healthy Eating Recommendations

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.
  • Limit highly processed foods. If you choose these foods, eat them less often and in small amounts.
  • Make water your drink of choice
  • Use food labels
  • Be aware that food marketing can influence your choices


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