Search Menu
Search entire library by keyword
Choose by letter to browse topics
A B C D E F G H I J K LM N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0-9
(A-Z listing includes diseases, conditions, tests and procedures)

Nutrition: Carbohydrate Counting

What are carbs?

Carbs — short for carbohydrates — are the sugars, fiber and starches found in foods. Carbs are broken down by the body and used for energy. Runners, for example, sometimes load up on carbs before a big race to ensure that their bodies will have abundant energy to power through the finish line.

Why count carbs?

Counting carbohydrates, or sugars, is often one of the first skills someone with type 1 diabetes will learn after their diagnosis. For either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it’s important to be aware of the number of carbs in the foods you eat because they directly affect the rise in your blood glucose after meals.

Foods like candy, soda and fruit juice contain "simple" carbs, which are broken down easily and trigger a rapid rise in blood glucose. Simple carbs are often not as nutritious as "complex" carbs, like vegetables, whole grain cereals or rice. Complex carbs take longer to break down, allowing for a slow, steady rise in blood glucose after meals. Complex carbs are preferred when possible for people with diabetes. Not all carbs are created equal; some are healthier than others.

Read the nutrition facts

When you look at the nutrition facts on a food package label, start with the three basics: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It’s also important to note that the "serving size" on the label may seem a bit misleading. The serving size is NOT the same as one "serving" of carbs, protein or fat. Rather, the serving size on the label simply reflects the amount of food normally eaten.

Understanding the nutrition facts

Carb counting begins with the food package label. So, as you might imagine, it is very important to understand how this label works. Homemade foods and garden-grown fruits and vegetables don’t come with a label, of course, so ask your doctor or nutritionist for a list of common foods and their nutritional values so you'll always be prepared.

When you examine a label, start by looking at the number of carbohydrates. Every 15 grams of carbs is considered one serving.

Recognizing single servings

As you become a skilled carb counter, you’ll learn to recognize single servings. Here are a few examples of 15-gram servings of carbs:

Starches and grains

  • ¼ bagel

  • One slice of bread

  • ¾ cup cold unsweetened cereal

  • 13cup pasta or rice

  • ½ cup corn, mashed potatoes or cooked beans

  • Five crackers

  • 3 cups popcorn


  • ½ banana or canned fruit in light syrup

  • 2 tablespoons dried fruit

  • 17 grapes

  • 1 cup melon

  • ¾ cup berries


  • 2-inch-square piece of cake or brownie without icing

  • Two small cookies

  • Five vanilla wafers

  • ½ cup sugar-free pudding

  • 1 tablespoon sugar or honey

  • ½ cup plain ice cream

  • ¼ cup sherbert/sorbet

Combination foods

  • ½ cup casserole

  • ½ sandwich

  • 1 cup meat stew with vegetables

  • One small taco


  • 1 cup white or soy milk

  • ½ cup chocolate milk

  • 1 cup plain yogurt

Planning your day

Every day, strive to eat a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. There is no perfect combination of these components for all people with diabetes; each person's diet needs to be individualized. Carbs in your diet should preferably come from nutrient-dense foods, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, and beans. Healthy fats, called unsaturated fats, such as nuts, avocados or olive oil, are also desirable. Healthy protein includes those from lean sources, such as chicken, beans or fish.

Experience Our Care

Find a physician at another Johns Hopkins Member Hospital:
Connect with a Treatment Center:
Find Additional Treatment Centers at:
woman holding pill case

Johns Hopkins Home Care

We provide high quality, individualized care for patients of all ages where you feel most comfortable – your home or community. Our services and equipment are designed to help you regain and retain a level of independence.

Learn More