Carb-Counting Diet

Spaghetti Squash Casserole with Broccoli and Chicken

What is the carb-counting diet?

The carb-counting diet is an eating plan designed to keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day. The diet involves counting the grams of carbohydrates in all the foods you eat. Keeping the amount of carbohydrates consumed at each meal consistent can help prevent fluctuations in blood sugar.

Are there other names for this diet?

Other names for this diet include the carbohydrate-counting diet or the consistent carbohydrate diet.

How does the carb-counting diet help people with cancer?

The carb-counting diet helps people who have a fluctuating blood sugar level. This condition is frequently associated with cancer and certain medications used to treat cancer. A steady blood sugar level is essential to good health. If left untreated, a fluctuating blood sugar level can lead to both diabetes and obesity. The carb-counting diet can help keep blood sugar in check. It also reduces added health risks in people who are already coping with cancer.

What are the basic principles of the carb-counting diet?

  • Counting the amount of carbs consumed at each meal is central to the diet. A dietitian will help you determine the overall amount that’s right for you at each meal or snack.
  • You will need to be able to identify which foods need to be counted as a carbohydrate and which foods are “free foods,” meaning that they don’t need to be counted.
  • You will also need to know the serving sizes for starches, grains, and other types of carbohydrates so that you have the right portion of food for each meal or snack.

Which foods contain carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found naturally in many types of foods, including grains and starches, fruits, certain vegetables, legumes, and dairy products. They are also found in many prepared or store-bought foods, including sweets and desserts.

How many carbs are allowed at each meal or snack on the carb-counting diet?

The number of carbs someone on the carb-counting diet can eat at each meal or snack varies. A dietitian can help you determine the number that is right for you. It is based on your usual caloric intake, physical activity, lifestyle, and whether you take certain diabetes medications.

In general, one serving of a carbohydrate food contains about 15 grams of carbohydrates. For many adults, the plan involves eating three to five carbohydrate servings (or 45 to 75 grams total carbohydrates) at each meal and one or two carbohydrate servings (15 to 30 grams total carbohydrates) at each snack.

In a healthy eating plan for someone on this diet, the ideal balance of carbohydrates is:

  • at least six servings of fruits and nonstarchy vegetables
  • at least six servings of grains, beans, and starchy vegetables, with
  • at least three servings from whole grains at least two servings of milk or milk products

Use the table below as a guide to serving sizes.

Starches 1 slice bread (1 ounce)
1 six-inch tortilla
¼ large bagel (1 ounce)
2 five-inch taco shells
½ hamburger or hot dog bun (¾ ounce)
¾ cup unsweetened cold cereal
½ cup unsweetened cooked cereal
4 to 6 small crackers
⅓ cup cooked pasta or rice
¾ ounce pretzels, potato chips, or tortilla chips
3 cups popcorn
Vegetables ½ cup beans (such as pinto beans, black beans, or chickpeas), peas, corn, sweet potatoes, winter squash, or mashed or boiled potatoes
¼ large baked potato (3 ounces)
Fruit ¾ to 1 cup fresh fruit
½ cup canned or frozen fruit
2 tablespoons dried fruit (such as blueberries, cherries, cranberries, mixed fruit, or raisins)
17 small grapes (3 ounces)
1 cup melon or berries
½ cup unsweetened fruit juice
Milk 1 cup fat-free or reduced-fat milk
1 cup soy milk (sweetened or unsweetened)
⅔ cup nonfat yogurt, flavored or plain, made with sugar-free sweetener
Sweets and Desserts 2-inch square piece of unfrosted cake
2 small cookies (⅔ ounce total)
½ cup ice cream or frozen yogurt
¼ cup sherbet or sorbet
1 tablespoon syrup, jam, jelly, table sugar, or honey
2 tablespoons light syrup
Carb Counting Diet Recipes

Instructed by your physician to eat a carb counting diet? Try our tasty recipes including entrée and dessert options.

What are the foods to avoid on the carb-counting diet?

Avoid unhealthy carbohydrates. They can provide energy but have little to no nutrients. These are usually foods and drinks with added sugars, including:

  • sugar-sweetened soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks
  • grain-based desserts, such as cakes, cookies, and doughnuts
  • milk-based desserts and products, such as sweetened yogurt and sweetened milk
  • candy

Are there medications to avoid while on the carb-counting diet?

If you are taking insulin, your care team will take this into account when helping you create a meal plan. Speak to your doctor or dietitian if you have concerns about any other medications you are taking while on the carb-counting diet.

What are some common concerns of people on the carb-counting diet, and how do you solve them?

The most common concern is that it’s difficult to count carbs. Follow these suggestions to make the counting a little easier:

  • Plan your meals ahead so you know which foods are going to count as your daily carbs.
  • For a dish that includes carbs mixed with other food groups, a good way to approximate the carb total is based on cup size. Count 1 cup of carbs mixed with other foods as one serving of carbs.
  • Frozen meals can provide a break from measuring portion sizes. Refer to the nutrition label on a meal’s package for information on the number of servings and the grams of carbohydrates in each serving.

What are some tips for people on the carb-counting diet?

  • Use measuring cups and spoons to measure portion sizes.
  • Track your carb intake throughout the day. You can use a pen and paper, keep notes on your phone, or try a nutrition-tracking app.
  • Read nutrition labs. Know how to find the serving size and total grams of carbohydrates per serving.
  • Count 1 cup raw vegetables or a ½ cup cooked nonstarchy vegetables as zero carbohydrate servings, or “free foods.” If you eat three or more servings of free foods at one meal, count it as one carbohydrate serving.
  • Foods that have less than 20 calories in each serving may be counted as free foods.
  • Count 1 cup of casserole or carbs mixed with other food groups as two carbohydrate servings.

What are tips for caregivers helping people who are on this diet?

  • See a registered dietitian for help creating a meal plan.
  • Attend diabetes classes together.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia and how to treat them.
  • Familiarize yourself with how to read a nutrition facts label and the common serving sizes of foods.