The Ultimate Carb Counting Cheat Sheet
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
There are many challenges to carb counting for diabetes. The aim of this cheat sheet is to help you accurately measure and count your carbohydrates. There are other challenges to dosing correctly for meals and those issues can be explored in one of my other articles on advanced bolus dosing skills.
Challenges and solutions to figuring out how many grams of carbohydrates you are eating:
Our eyes are not a good gauge for accurate measurements. So many of my clients will tell me that they "ate a few tablespoons of rice" when in reality they may have eaten closer to a 1/2 cup of rice. Not knowing how much of a food you are consuming makes carb counting impossible. Until you train your eyes to be accurate, continue using measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a food scale. Measuring serving spoons (similar to what is used in a cafeteria) can also be helpful by allowing you to scoop out your food from a dish or pot with an accurate measuring tool.
A food scale is key when trying to carb count foods that are difficult to measure. Think about all of the foods that don't fit perfectly into measuring cups - roasted and baked potatoes, rigatoni and penne pasta, bananas, strawberries, broccoli, bread, tortillas, and so much more. My cheat sheet will help you use any food scale to accurately carb count your favorite foods. Just weigh your food and enter the grams into my cheat sheet. You can use my cheat sheet to add your own foods too. Simply look up your favorite food in the USDA Food Database, add it to the cheat sheet, and then drag the lower right corner of the cell in the last two columns to continue the formula in cells that you add to the spreadsheet.
If the use of a cheat sheet like this feels overwhelming to you, consider getting a nutrition food scale that does some of the leg work for you. One example of these is the Greater Goods Nutrition Food Scale. Here's how they work: look up the food you are wanting to measure in the booklet that comes with the scale, enter the 4-digit code associated with that food into the scale. Then place your food onto the scale and voila, the digital nutrition facts label populates with the nutrition information including the carb count of the food you are weighing. I had fun playing around with this scale the first time I got it. Some surprising foods that I weighed included a New York bagel, which weighed in at a whopping 72 grams of carbs! Next was a Harry and David gift basket apple, the largest apple I've ever held and it weighed in at a juicy 32 grams of carbs. Homemade bread or bread from a bakery is another eye-opener. It's so easy to underestimate the carbs on these.
Know how to read a nutrition facts label. The key elements here are serving size and total carbohydrates in grams. The amount in parenthesis in the label below is the weight of the serving size. In this example, one serving is 1/2 cup of the dry, uncooked food, and that should be equal to 40 grams in weight. If you were to weigh 40 grams of this food on a food scale or measure 1/2 cup of this food in a measuring cup, it is 27 grams of carbohydrates, according to the label below. The problem is that no one cooks just 1 serving of a food. For example, most people will cook 1/2 of a box or a whole box of pasta and serve themselves from the larger amount that was cooked. This poses a problem for grains and pastas that are listed with dry measurement servings on nutrition facts labels.
Option 1: Use the USDA food database to look up the carbs in the cooked amount of the food.
Option 2: If the food you are looking for is not in the database and you want to get a specific measurement, cook just 1 serving of the food so that you can weigh the cooked amount. Add the cooked amount to your cheat sheet. Then reference your cheat sheet next time you are making that food.
Mixed foods pose a big challenge. For example, how many carbs are in a burrito? If you're making the burrito at home, measure each of the carbohydrate food items going into the burrito (rice, beans, tortilla) to get the total carb amount. If you're eating at a chain restaurant, you can go onto their website to get the carb count of the burrito. Pro tip: all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must post the nutritional values of the foods on their menu. What if you're eating at a friends house or your favorite local restaurant and need to carb count a burrito? This is where all of your practice measuring foods at home comes into play. You will train your eyes by measuring foods at home. When you're dining out, you can visually deconstruct the dish you are eating (example, how much beans does this look like, how much rice does this look like, is this tortilla "Chipotle size" or a normal fajita size?) to estimate the portion sizes of each carbohydrate ingredient. Then use an app (Calorie King, Carb Manager) or website (Calorie King, USDA Food Database) to look up the carb content of that food if you don't have it memorized yet.
I've highlighted a few of the challenges with carb counting. Feel free to comment here with more problems that your encounter with carb counting. I'll be happy to answer your questions!
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