Carbohydrate Guidelines for Type 2 Diabetes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. But carbs also raise your blood sugar. When you have type 2 diabetes, it’s important to aim for a balanced carb intake. It can seem confusing and a little overwhelming at first, but don’t be discouraged. Your doctor, diabetes educator, or dietitian can help you find a meal plan that works for you.

By setting limits on your carb intake—and tracking what you eat to make sure you stay within those limits—you can improve your blood sugar control. To get started, here are some basic facts you need to know.

Crash Course in Carbs

Foods that contain carbohydrates include:

  • Grains, such as breads, cereals, pasta, and rice
  • Fruits and fruit juices
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn (nonstarchy vegetables also contain carbs, but usually very little)
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt
  • Sweets, such as cookies, pastries, cakes and candy
  • Snack foods, such as potato chips

To find the carb content of a food, check the amount of total carbohydrate on the food label. Be sure to look at the serving amount as well. If you’re eating twice as much as the listed serving, you’ll need to double the total carbs.
If a food doesn’t have a label, there are many apps and books available to help you track carbs. One great free tool is MyFoodAdvisor from the American Diabetes Association. At first, you may need to look up almost everything. But with time, you’ll start to learn how many carbs are in your favorite foods and dishes.

How Much Is Enough?

The American Diabetes Association recommends getting about 45% of your total calories from carbs. You should spread out your carb consumption throughout the day. Typically, that works out to about 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal and 10 to 25 grams per snack, eaten twice a day between meals. But ask your healthcare provider for guidance on more specific goals for you.

Achieving those goals doesn’t happen by accident. You’ll need to plan your meals more carefully than someone without diabetes. Fortunately, there are several methods of meal planning to make the process easier. Your healthcare provider can help you choose the best method for you, based on your preferences and needs.

3 Ways to Track Carbs

These are three techniques for planning meals so you get the right amount of carbs:

  1. Carb counting. This method is the most straightforward. You work with your healthcare provider to set a limit for how many carbs you’ll consume at each meal. Then you track the grams of carbohydrate in the foods you eat.
  2. Exchange lists. This method categorizes foods into groups, such as carbohydrates, meat/meat alternatives, and fats. The plan spells out how many servings you can have from each group at a meal. Within each group, the plan also specifies how much of each food equals one serving, based on its nutrient content. You can exchange a serving of one food for another within the same group.
  3. Glycemic index(GI). This method lets you refine carb counting. It considers not only the quantity of carbs in the foods you eat, but also the quality. Foods with a high GI value raise blood sugar more than those with a low GI. So the goal is to choose your carbs from foods with a lower GI value, such as many whole grain foods, most fruits, nonstarchy vegetables, and dried beans and peas.

Using the Plate Method

Some people with type 2 diabetes use a less formal method of gauging how many carbs to eat. Called the plate method, it doesn’t require any counting at all. Instead, you simply imagine dividing your plate in half. Then divide one side in half again.

Fill the large section with nonstarchy veggies. Fill one small section with grains, starchy veggies, or cooked beans and peas, and the other with meat or another protein food. Add a cup of low-fat milk and a piece of fruit, and you’ve got a balanced meal.

Key Takeaways

  • Although carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet, they raise your blood sugar. If you have type 2 diabetes, you need to aim for a balanced carb intake.
  • Carbs are found in a variety of foods. You can check food labels to find the carb content, or use a website, app, or book to help you.
  • The American Diabetes Association recommends getting about 45% of your total calories from carbs.
  • There are several methods to help you plan meals, including carb counting, exchange lists, glycemic index, and the plate method.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.