What is Carb Counting and Should You Do It?

Carbohydrate counting is a tool that registered dietitians have been teaching diabetics for years now — but does it warrant others’ attention too? Essentially, carbohydrate counting and the carbohydrate exchange system allows people to easily understand and estimate how many carbohydrates they are consuming per amount of food. This allows type 1 and type 2 diabetics to give themselves the right amount of insulin or eat the recommended amount of carbohydrates per meal. But are diabetics the only group that should be tracking their carb intake?

We think that carbohydrate counting can be an effective tool for different populations and could make estimating carbohydrate needs a breeze. Here’s the rundown on who could benefit from the skill, the basics of starting and how to practice on your own.  

What exactly is carb counting?

As you may know, carbohydrates that we consume are measured in grams and everyone has different recommended carbohydrate intake needs that are estimated based on age, weight, activity level and disease state. When you learn to carb count, you can use what’s called “The Carbohydrate Exchange List” system to estimate how many carbohydrates you are having in grams per meal or per day based on specific foods. Once you learn the specific portion size of common carbohydrates in your diet, you can use math to add up how many carbohydrates you are consuming in a meal and to know which foods you can swap in with similar carb amounts.

Who could benefit from learning how to carb count?

As we mentioned earlier, diabetics benefit most from learning carb counting using the exchange system because every carb exchange (1 exchange = 15 grams carb) equates to 1 unit of insulin, which allows for the correct amount of insulin to be given after eating. While this is life-saving, dietitians also use carb counting and the exchange system to help patients estimate their intake for other reasons, hence why we believe this skill is underrated and could be taught to and used by so many people! For example, if endurance athletes learned how to easily count their carbohydrates, they could be properly fueled and have an edge on the competition because they would have consumed exactly what they needed for the race.

Most people would need to work with a registered dietitian to understand their specific carbohydrate needs based on their goals, but once they do and know how to use carb counting and the exchange system, they can easily build their meal plans and estimate their portions per meal. Besides diabetics and athletes, other groups that could benefit would be prediabetics (those who are starting to be insulin resistant), bodybuilders and even those on specific diets such as the ketogenic diet.

How do you use the exchange system to estimate carbs?

One of the best ways to learn how to count carbs is by using the exchange system that is used by diabetics. In the exchange system, foods with a similar amount of carbohydrates per serving are grouped together. The foods can be exchanged for one another in a meal plan and will still keep the same amount of carbohydrates. One exchange equals 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Let’s put this into action

To start, let’s discuss the groups and their common exchanges:

Dried beans and peas: ½ cup = 15 grams

Starchy vegetables: corn, peas and potatoes (½ cup) = 15 grams

Cooked cereals: bran, bulgar, oats, cornmeal, grits (½ cup) = 15 grams

Breads: sliced bread, tortilla, roti, and rolls (1 slice or piece) = 15 grams

Fruit: ½ cup fresh and ¼ cup dried = 15 grams


Now, let’s put together a meal and estimate the carbs in the meal:

1 cup cooked oatmeal with ½ cup blueberries and 1 slice of whole wheat bread

1 cup cooked oatmeal = 2 exchanges = 15 x 2 = 30 grams

½ cup blueberries = 1 exchange = 15 grams

1 slice of bread = 1 exchange= 15 grams

Total: 60 grams


Let’s say you want to have grits instead of oatmeal.

That would be the same amount of carbs since they have the same amount of exchanges!


While we think that carb counting is a super cool skill to have, we do recognize you may need to have a specific need to learn it. If carb counting is not your thing and you’re just looking for general guidelines, we do recommend following the healthy plate method. It’s a simple visual to follow when building the meals that will set you up for success (and it requires no math!).

Gabriella is a registered dietitian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently works in corporate wellness as a dietitian and overall wellness coach. She also runs a food blog called Macrobalanced, where she shows people that healthy and balanced eating can be interesting and tasty! She enjoys all things fitness from lifting heavy weights in the gym to hitting the barre. Nothing is off limits as long as sweat is involved. When she is not cooking or sweating, she is playing with her dog Maui, a lively German Shepherd. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.