Counting Carbs

If you’re watching your weight or managing diabetes, you may find that counting carbs works better for you than counting calories. Here’s how!

What’s a carb?

“Carb” is short for “carbohydrate.” All food can be divided up into its macronutrients:

  • protein
  • fats
  • carbohydrates

But it’s not quite that simple. Most adults need about 50 grams of protein a day, but some fats are healthier than others, and all carbohydrates are not alike, either.

Carbohydrates include sugars, fiber, and starches. In general, it’s best to reduce sugars and increase fiber. 

The recommended maximum amount of added sugar per day is about 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men. There is no recommended amount of sugar, and no nutritional value in sugar. You would be best off having no sugar at all, but that would be very difficult. Not only are human beings hard-wired to like sugar, but it is present in almost all processed foods, from spaghetti sauce to salad dressing.

Fiber is good for your digestion and your heart health. You should aim for 25 to 35 grams per day of fiber. Whole grains like brown rice, legumes like beans and lentils, fruits like berries and apples, and vegetables like artichokes and broccoli are all good sources of fiber.

Starches can be healthful or not. Starchy vegetables like baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, and squash are highly nutritious. Refined starches like white rice, refined flour, and breakfast cereals are low in nutritional value. 

So just looking at the number of carbs on a nutrition label is not enough for healthy eating.

How many carbs should you eat?

45 to 60 grams of healthy carbs per meal is a good target. Carbs are your body’s best source of energy, especially for organs like the brain and the kidneys. With too few carbs, it can be hard for you to exercise vigorously and feel well.

But all carbs are not equal in nutritional value. Look at two examples:

  • baked potato, 37 grams
  • 1 c. broccoli, 6 grams
  • 1 orange, 15 grams

This group of foods, along with a serving of fish or other lean protein without any carbs added in cooking, adds up to 58 carbs.

  • 1 hot dog with bun, 27 grams
  • 1 small bag of potato chips, 15 grams
  • 1 cookie, 16 grams

This group of foods, even if you add a diet soda, also totals 58 grams of carbs. But the nutritional profile — protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals — is completely different from the first group, and much less healthy. 

What about net carbs?

Total carbohydrates include the sugars, fiber, and starches in the food. However, fiber passes through your digestive system and is not broken down into glucose and used for energy. You can therefore calculate net carbs by subtracting the grams of fiber from a foods total carbs. 

That orange, for example, has 15 carbs, but it has 3 grams of fiber. That means it has just 12 net carbs. 

If you are diabetic or have been advised by your physician to keep carbs within certain limits, don’t go with net carbs. This is a marketing concept from the food industry, and there is not enough research to use it for serious decision-making. 

However, if this concept helps you increase your fiber intake and makes sense to you, it can be helpful.

How do you count carbs?

For packaged foods, use the nutrition label. 

Measure out the correct serving size. In this case, one serving is 1/4 cup. 

Check the Total Carbohydrate line to find the carbohydrate grams — or carbs. The trail mix package above has 17 grams of carbohydrates in one serving. 1/4 cup of the product has 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of added sugar, but 10 grams total sugar. With 7 grams of protein, 13 grams of healthy fat, and good amounts of several minerals, we’re looking at a reasonably healthy snack. 

If it’s part of a meal, we’d have 43 grams of carbohydrates to go before we hit 60 grams, so we could have a baked potato and a cup of broccoli.

For unprocessed foods, ask Google how many carbs your food has. Ask about foods you eat frequently first. You can make a list of the carb counts of common foods as you look them up. Over time, you’ll become familiar with the foods you eat often.

This sounds like a lot of trouble…

If you’d rather not count anything, try the Plate Method! You’ll fill half your plate with vegetables and one quarter with healthy carbohydrates like whole grains or starchy vegetables. That leaves one quarter of the plate for lean protein. It works out about the same.