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Carbohydrate counting fact sheet

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Foods that contain carbohydrate are an important source of fuel for your body. Your body breaks down carbohydrate into glucose in the gut, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose is used by the body’s cells for energy.

It’s important to know how much carbohydrate there is in the food you eat to understand the effects on your blood glucose levels. This can help you manage your diabetes better. Carbohydrate counting is a way of estimating the amount of carbohydrate in different foods.

Why is the amount of carbohydrate important?

All carbohydrates are converted to glucose within about two hours of eating, directly affecting your blood glucose levels. Eating carbohydrate foods evenly across the day can help maintain energy levels and keep your blood glucose levels within your target range.

  • Eating too much carbohydrate at one time can result in high blood glucose levels after meals.
  • Eating too little carbohydrate can result in low energy levels. If you use insulin or certain types of blood glucose-lowering medications, eating too little carbohydrate or skipping a meal can cause your blood glucose levels to drop too low and lead to hypoglycaemia (a hypo).

How to count carbohydrates

There are many ways to count the amount of carbohydrate in food. Counting carbohydrate exchanges is one way of estimating the amount of carbohydrate in food.

A carbohydrate exchange is an amount of food that contains approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate. Exchanges don’t refer to the weight of a food—for example, a slice of bread can weigh 40 grams but only contain 15 grams of carbohydrate (one exchange).

Different carbohydrate foods can be ‘exchanged’ for one another so that you consume a similar amount of carbohydrate. Some examples of one carbohydrate exchange include:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1 medium apple
  • ⅓ cup of cooked rice
  • 1 cup of milk.

Sometimes carbohydrates may be counted in grams instead of exchanges (also called serve). This method is most commonly used by people who manage their diabetes with an insulin pump or multiple daily injections (MDIs).

Another way to count the amount of carbohydrate in food is by counting carbohydrate portions. A carbohydrate portion (CP) is the amount of food that contains 10 grams of carbohydrate. This method is most commonly used by people who follow the Dose Adjustment For Normal Eating (DAFNE) program.

For more information about different methods of carbohydrate counting and what is best for you, talk to a dietitian.

How much carbohydrate should you eat?

The amount of carbohydrate you need each day depends on many factors, such as your age, gender, weight and activity levels. Talk to a dietitian about your individual needs.

The following table provides a general guide to the amount of carbohydrate that the average man and woman may need at each main meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner). However, a healthy diet can include more or less carbohydrate than this.

General guide to the amount of carbohydrate at each main meal
 Grams of carbohydrate at main mealsCarbohydrate exchanges
Women30–452–3
Men45–603–4

What about snacks?

If you use insulin or certain types of blood glucose lowering medications, you may need to eat a carbohydrate-based snack, in between meals and before going to bed, to prevent a hypo. Talk to your health care team about whether you need to eat carbohydrate snacks. For adults requiring a carbohydrate snack, a general guide to aim for is: 1–2 carbohydrate exchanges per snack (15–30 grams of carbohydrate).

Sample meal plan

This meal plan is an example of what carbohydrate counting looks like for an adult across a day.

Each main meal provides three (3) carbohydrate exchanges and each snack provides one (1) carbohydrate exchange. The carbohydrate foods are in bold.

Sample meal plan
MealFoodCarbohydrate exchanges
Breakfast½ cup natural muesli with 250ml low-fat milk3
Snack1 small banana1
Lunch2 slices wholegrain bread with ½ cup baked beans3
Snack1 apple and 30g unsalted raw nuts1
Evening meal100g grilled chicken/beef/tofu stir-fried with ginger and garlic, 2 cups mixed nonstarchy vegetables, and served with 1 cup cooked basmati rice3
Snack200g low-fat natural yoghurt cup berries1

Carbohydrate exchanges

A carbohydrate exchange list provides information about the serving size of food that is equal to one exchange (approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate). Examples are shown in this table. Note that these are a general guide, and the amount of carbohydrate in food can vary between brands.

Carbohydrate exchange list
Carbohydrate foodOne exchange (15 grams of carbohydrate
Bread and bread products1 regular slice of bread/fruit bread
1 small roti/chapati
1 crumpet – round shape
½ bread roll or ½ English muffin
½ wrap or ½ pita ‘pocket’ bread / ¼ large pita bread
¼ bagel
Breakfast cereals⅓ cup raw rolled oats
¼ cup natural muesli
1½ wheat biscuit type cereal
½ cup flake type cereal with dried fruit
Rice/pasta/grains/flour½ cup cooked pasta
½ cup cooked noodles (rice/egg/soba)
⅓ cup cooked rice/quinoa/couscous
½ cup cooked barley/bulgur (cracked wheat)
2 tablespoons flour/corn flour/raw polenta
Biscuits/crackers11 rice crackers
1 thick/3 thin rice or corn cakes
2-3 plain crispbreads, medium size
6 plain crispbreads, small squares/rounds
2 plain sweet biscuits/fruit slice biscuit
Starchy vegetables1 medium potato (70g) or ½ cup mashed potato
½ cup sweet potato (100g)
½ cup sweet corn kernels or 1 medium cob (170g)
Legumes½ cup cooked/canned bean mix including chickpeas, kidney beans, cannellini beans, baked beans
¾ cup cooked/canned lentils
Fruit1 medium apple/pear/orange/peach
1 small banana (½ medium)
1 small mango (½ medium )
3 medium apricots
3 small or 2 medium mandarins
2 kiwifruits/plums/small nectarines
1½ cups diced rockmelon/watermelon/honeydew
1 cup blueberries/cherries/canned fruit (drained)
½ cup grapes
1 tablespoon sultanas
4 dried prunes 250ml
Milk and milk products or
alternatives
low-fat milk/soy milk
½ cup evaporated skim milk
200g diet yoghurt/natural yoghurt
100g low-fat fruit yoghurt
½ cup low-fat custard

Reading food labels

You can also use the nutrition information panel on a food label to work out the number of carbohydrate exchanges in food. The nutrition information panel shows the total grams of carbohydrate per serve.

Food label example

For example, a single serve of this food would provide 15.5 grams of carbohydrate, which is equal to one carbohydrate exchange.

This table can help you calculate the number of exchanges when reading a nutrition information panel.

Number of carbohydrate exchanges
Total grams of carbohydrate per serveCarbohydrate exchanges
7–11½
12–18
27–332
34–41
42–483

More information

An accredited practising dietitian (APD) can provide more guidance on carbohydrate counting and whether you may benefit from eating snacks between meals.

Recommended carbohydrate counting resources include:

Recommended apps include:

The NDSS and you

A wide range of services and support is available through the NDSS to help you manage your diabetes. This includes information on diabetes management through the NDSS Helpline and website. The products, services and education programs available can help you stay on top of your diabetes.

This information is intended as a guide only. It should not replace individual medical advice. If you have any concerns about your health, or further questions, you should contact your health professional.

Version 3 June 2020. First published June 2016.