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Carb counting tips: Avoiding guesswork


When you sit down for a meal or grab a snack, knowing the amount of carbs you’re eating can help to control your blood glucose levels and to manage your weight.

We’ve covered some of the basics of carb counting previously.

A few people with diabetes have contacted us with queries about the carb content listed on labels on some of their favourite foods. This got us thinking and we decided that it might be useful to share some tips with you to help improve the accuracy of your carb counting. 

Tips for more accurate carb counting

Whether you're new to carb counting or consider yourself well practised, it's always worth refreshing your knowledge and learning extra tips to ensure that your counting remains accurate.

Reading food labels

  • While food labels do provide useful information to help you estimate the carb content of the product, remember to look at the carbohydrate of the product, not just the sugars. By counting the total carbohydrate content, all of the ingredients that affect blood glucose levels are taken into account.
  • Be sure to check if the stated amount is per dried or prepared weight. It’s easy to get caught out as manufacturers sometimes change how they list the nutrient information. For example, some packs of pasta list the carbohydrate content of dried pasta but others as prepared. 

Food preparation and portion size

  • Check that you’re preparing food as suggested as this will make a difference. 100g of very well cooked pasta (which has absorbed more water) will have a different carb content to 100g of pasta cooked al dente (firm to bite).
  • Check your portion size - it might be different to that specified. For example, some ready meals state that they ‘serve two’ whereas you might be eating the whole pack in one sitting. Similarly, if you’re cooking for children you may be serving less than the recommended serving size.
  • To be sure, it helps to weigh your portion against the suggested serving size as you may be consuming more or less than the stated portion. It’s always useful to check that your food weight remains consistent. For example, is that bowl of cereal the same weight as it was yesterday? If not, you may be eating more, or less, carbs that you’ve calculated.
  • Some people with diabetes find it useful to use everyday household utensils (e.g. tablespoons) to measure out items such as cereal: this way, you can be sure your cereals weighs in grams, which means you don’t have the bother of weighing food all the time. 

Weighing food and calculating carbs

  • Fruit, potatoes and other starchy food sizes can vary considerably. The difference in carbohydrate content between a small and large banana can easily be as much as 20g so it helps to weigh and check. With practise, many people with diabetes find that they can visually estimate carb content.
  • Digital scales and household utensils are readily available. It may sound obvious, but many people find they are more likely to weigh/measure food if the equipment is kept on the kitchen worktop as opposed to tucked at back of cupboard. 
  • The better trained you are to visually estimate carb content, the more precise you’ll be. One strategy people find useful is to put their usual portion on their plate or bowl, before weighing it to check. Often, this reveals that their usual portion is two to three times larger than previously thought.
  • With many food and drink manufacturers reformulating products (e.g. reducing the sugar content and therefore the reducing carb content), it’s important to always check the food label. Over recent years, many food manufacturers have reduced the sugar content of everyday products such as soft drinks, breakfast cereals, tins of soup, baked beans and even biscuits.

Using technology

  • Similarly, although the Internet is a great way of finding out the nutritional information of restaurant and café menus, be aware that recipes are often tweaked and so your information might be outdated. Remember to check back regularly. It’s worth mentioning that all of our recipes are labelled with the carb content.
  • Books such as ‘Carb & Cals’ show thousands of photos of food in a range of pre-plated portions on plated with accompanying nutritional information – this means that you can compare your portion alongside to check the carbs. This can be useful when food doesn’t carry a nutrition information label or when you’re eating out and don’t have the nutritional info or scales available. The ‘Carb & Cals’ app – and, indeed, other apps - are also available and allow you to access the info at your fingertips. Our free carb count eBook gives an introduction to carbohydrate counting and insulin dose adjustment for people with Type 1 diabetes.
  • To save time and effort, it’s useful to keep a list of the carb content of your usual food and drink to hand. Some people create an online database so they don’t have to constantly check and re-check.

Type 1 and carb counting

Certainly, if you’ve got type 1 diabetes and are on a basal bolus regime or insulin pump, many of you will have attended a course or had a one-to-one session with your health care professional. These teach you how to carb count and enable you to effectively match insulin dose to the carb containing foods you are eating or drinking. This can give you greater flexibility in terms of diet and routine.

For those of you on fixed daily doses of insulin, eating consistent amounts of carbohydrate on a day-to-day basis, and at similar times each day, can greatly help to control blood glucose levels.

Type 2 and carb counting

For people with type 2 diabetes, being aware of the carb content of food can help with diabetes control. 

Increasingly, people with type 2 diabetes who use insulin are being taught about carb counting, both on courses or in consultation with their health care professional.

To carbohydrate count successfully, you will need much more information. Support and education from your healthcare professional is paramount and, as one of the 15 healthcare essentials, you should be offered education in your local area. Additionally, if if you are unable, or don't wish to attend a group course, you should be offered an alternative.

There are many carb counting courses available so do ask your healthcare team what’s available. Even if you’ve been on a carb counting course already, many areas run refresher sessions and we do know of people who have attended a second course if their initial one was a while ago. You can find out about courses available in your area from your diabetes healthcare team.

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