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Counting Carbohydrates for Diabetes: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

You don't have to eat special foods when you have diabetes. Carbohydrates (carbs) raise blood sugar higher and quicker than any other nutrient. Carbs are found in desserts, breads and cereals, and fruit. They're also in starchy vegetables. These include potatoes, corn, and grains such as rice and pasta. Carbs are also in milk and yogurt.

The more carbs you eat at one time, the higher your blood sugar will rise. Spreading carbs all through the day helps keep your blood sugar levels within your target range.

Counting carbs is one of the best ways to keep your blood sugar under control.

If you use insulin, counting carbs helps you match the right amount of insulin to the number of grams of carbs in a meal. Then you can change your diet and insulin dose as needed. Testing your blood sugar several times a day can help you learn how carbs affect your blood sugar.

A registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you plan meals and snacks.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Know your daily amount of carbohydrates

Your daily amount depends on several things, such as your weight, how active you are, which diabetes medicines you take, and what your goals are for your blood sugar levels. A registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you plan how many carbs to include in each meal and snack.

For most adults, a guideline for the daily amount of carbs is:

  • 45 to 60 grams at each meal. That's about the same as 3 to 4 carbohydrate servings.
  • 15 to 20 grams at each snack. That's about the same as 1 carbohydrate serving.

Count carbs

Counting carbs lets you know how much rapid-acting insulin to take before you eat. If you use an insulin pump, you get a constant rate of insulin during the day. So the pump must be programmed at meals. This gives you extra insulin to cover the rise in blood sugar after meals.

If you take insulin:

  • Learn your own insulin-to-carb ratio. You and your diabetes health professional will figure out the ratio. You can do this by testing your blood sugar after meals. For example, you may need a certain amount of insulin for every 15 grams of carbs.
  • Add up the carb grams in a meal. Then you can figure out how many units of insulin to take based on your insulin-to-carb ratio.
  • Exercise lowers blood sugar. You can use less insulin than you would if you were not doing exercise. Keep in mind that timing matters. If you exercise within 1 hour after a meal, your body may need less insulin for that meal than it would if you exercised 3 hours after the meal. Test your blood sugar to find out how exercise affects your need for insulin.

If you do or don't take insulin:

  • Look at labels on packaged foods. This can tell you how many carbs are in a serving. You can also use guides from Diabetes Canada.
  • Be aware of portions, or serving sizes. If a package has two servings and you eat the whole package, you need to double the number of grams of carbohydrate listed for one serving.
  • Protein, fat, and fibre do not raise blood sugar as much as carbs do. If you eat a lot of these nutrients in a meal, your blood sugar will rise more slowly than it would otherwise.

Eat a variety of foods each day

  • Eat at least three meals a day.
  • Follow Canada's Food Guide and choose a variety of vegetables and fruits, protein foods, and whole grain foods. Make water your drink of choice.
  • Talk to your dietitian or diabetes educator about ways to add limited amounts of sweets into your meal plan.
  • If you drink alcohol, talk to your doctor. It may not be recommended when you are taking certain diabetes medicines.

Where can you learn more?

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