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How do I Count Carbs?

By: Rebecca Kyle, Pharm.D.

This year you are really going to do it.  This is the year that you are going to shed that weight.  Your friend told you that she did it by going on a low carb diet. Or maybe you went in for your yearly checkup and the doctor told you that you have metabolic syndrome and are in danger of becoming diabetic. Perhaps you are a type 1 diabetic who must adjust your insulin dosage throughout the day according to your carbohydrate intake. With each of these cases you are going to need to learn how to count the carbohydrates that you consume on a daily basis, and most likely reduce you carbohydrate intake.

How do Carbs Work in the Body?

First, a little bit of info about how our bodies handle carbohydrates. When we consume carbs they are absorbed from our gut into our blood stream. This raises our blood sugar. A high blood sugar is toxic to our body. Fortunately our bodies have a mechanism to handle the excess sugar. Our pancreas secretes insulin in response to the elevated blood sugar in efforts to reduce it as quickly as possible. The insulin drives the excess sugar into the liver and muscles. Once the liver and muscles are basically “saturated” with sugar (now in the form of glycogen) any additional sugar is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.

Identifying Carbs is the First Step

Learning to identify which foods are considered “high carb” is essential to lowering blood sugar and losing the fat. It is probably clear that anything made with sugar, like candy bars, cake, and soda pop, will be high in carbohydrates. What is less clear are the foods that are considered complex carbohydrates. Included in this are foods like breads, pasta, rice, and potatoes. These complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules all linked together. The process of digestion breaks these molecules apart so that when they are absorbed they have the same effect as eating sugar. Fruits and vegetables also contain carbohydrates. Some are in the form of sugar called fructose. Some, like bananas, are in the form referred to as starches, while others are in the form called fiber.  Fiber is difficult for our bodies to break down and absorb, so it has little effect on our blood sugar. Fiber is necessary for maintaining a healthy intestinal tract.

How many carbs should I eat?

How many carbohydrates are too many? If you look up the definition of a low carbohydrate diet you will find numerous variations, so for our purposes we will define a low carb diet as consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbs per day and a very low carb diet as consuming less than 30 grams of carbs per day.

Unless one is involved in routine vigorous exercise it can be difficult to lose weight consuming more than 100 grams of carbs per day, and indeed many people who consume more than 100 grams of carbs on a daily basis will see their weight creep up over time.

The Benefit of Exerciseshutterstock_266369615

Exercise allows us to consume more carbohydrates than when we are inactive because it depletes the liver and muscles of the sugar stored in them.  Think of muscle as a sponge that absorbs sugar and exercise is like “squeezing” the sponge to empty it, allowing it then to take up more sugar. Remember that when we consume more carbs than we can burn immediately or that the muscles can hold, the excess is converted to triglycerides which is stored as fat.

Examples of Counting Carbs

Food Grams of Carbohydrates
12 unce can of Coca-Cola 39
2 layer frosted cake (4” square) 70
1 ear of sweet corn 19
1 cup cantaloupe 13
1 slice bread 14
1 ounce peanuts 6
1 cucumber 5
½ cup raw bell pepper 3
1 cup romaine lettuce 1
½ cup cooked potato 15
1 cup milk 12
1 ounce cheddar cheese <1
1 tablespoon butter 0

Processed Foods have Higher Carb Content

Watch out for “sneaky” carbs. Processed foods, as compared to fresh often have added sugar and starches. For example: 1 cup of fresh sliced peaches has about 16 grams of carbs, 1 cup of canned peaches in light syrup has 36 grams of carbs, 1 cup of sweetened frozen peaches has 60 grams of carbs, and one serving of peach cobbler has a whopping 80 grams of carbs. Learn to read labels and be sure to check serving size. Also note that most products that are labeled as “low fat” versions are going to be high in carbohydrates in order to make them palatable.

Tools to Help with Carb Counting

carb-counter.net – offers database of amount of carbs in many different foods

carb-counter.org – offers database of amount of carbs in many different foods

carbscontrol.com – free app that assists you in counting carbs

Helpful Tips for Controlling Your Carbs

  • Don’t drink your carbs. Carbohydrates in liquid form are absorbed very rapidly. This leads to a sharp rise in blood sugar with a subsequent dumping of insulin. Liver and muscle are quickly saturated and the remainder of carbs are stored as fat. Instead of sodas, sweet tea, sugary coffee drinks or fruit juices opt for water, or unsweetened tea of coffee.
  • Most of your carbohydrates should come in the form of vegetables and high fiber fruits. Fiber slows the absorption of the other carbohydrates, which means lower spikes in blood sugar. Lower spikes in blood sugar means less insulin dumping. Less insulin dumping means less fat production.
  • Spread your carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day. Consuming 15 grams of carbs six times daily will result in lower blood sugar spikes than consuming 45 grams twice a day.
  • Keep on the lookout for “sneaky” carbs. Become an avid label reader.
  • Squeeze out those sponges! Exercise increases your ability to take in carbs without converting them to fat. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, five days a week.  Brisk walking is great and muscle building exercise will give you bigger “sponges”.