It is a meal planning tool that helps control the level of glucose in the blood, facilitating the treatment of diabetes. Learn here how this technique works and why it is useful to prevent possible complications of the disease.
It is known that people with diabetes must follow a treatment in which physical activity and diet play a very important role, in addition to other aspects. In the diet of a patient with diabetes, carbohydrate counting consists of keeping track of the precise amounts of carbohydrates in the foods you eat daily, to improve the control of your glycemia (blood glucose).
What are carbohydrates?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), carbohydrates are one of the main compounds found in food and beverages, which are burnt during the metabolism to produce energy, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). In the human diet, carbohydrates are presented, especially, in the form of starches and sugars, and are divided into three main groups:
Monosaccharides, such as glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Disaccharides, such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose, and maltose.
Polysaccharides, such as starch, glycogen (animal starch), and cellulose.
Although the so-called carbohydrates are vital in human food, people with diabetes must control their blood glucose levels using resources such as carbohydrate counting, considering that they affect glycemia in a greater percentage than other nutrients like protein and fat.
Are all carbohydrates healthy?
Although they are necessary in people’s diet, not all carbohydrates provide benefits in the form of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to the human body. Healthy carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, which are important in a balanced eating plan since they provide, in addition to other nutrients, energy and fiber.
On the other hand, unhealthy carbohydrates are foods and beverages with added sugars. These types of carbohydrates may also provide energy, but they represent little or nothing in terms of nutrients for the human body.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) includes foods that contain carbohydrates (healthy and unhealthy):
- grains, such as bread, noodles, pasta, crackers, cereal, and rice.
- fruits, such as apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, melons, and oranges.
- dairy products, such as milk and yogurt.
- legumes, including dried beans, lentils, and peas.
- sandwiches and sweets, such as cakes, sweet cookies, caramels, among other desserts.
- juices, sodas, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks that contain added sugars.
- and those rich in starch, such as potatoes (tuber) and corn (cereal).
Why count carbohydrates?
If a patient with diabetes knows which foods contain carbohydrates, in turn he can know the amount of carbohydrates he is going to eat. Thus, the indicated amount of insulin may be administered to metabolize the carbohydrate that is being eaten. This way, the person can ensure their glucose levels are within the desired range, preventing them from rising or falling more than normal.
Carbohydrate counting gives patients with type 1 diabetes (DM1) the ability to adjust the amount of insulin applied to each meal, allowing them to better manage the disease and prevent or delay complications of diabetes.
How are carbohydrates counted?
If you want to count the grams of carbohydrates in the foods you eat, you must first know the number of grams of carbohydrates in each food. Then you can add the number of grams of carbohydrates for each meal to get your daily total.
Specialists recommend that the carbohydrate intake for most people be between 45 and 65 percent of the total calories ingested. Those who eat low-calorie diets and do not engage in physical activity should be on the low end of that range, experts say.
One must know that one gram of carbohydrates represents about four calories. To know the number of grams, one must then divide by four the number of calories to get from carbohydrates. The NIDDK explains that if a person wants to eat 1,800 total calories per day and get 45 percent of those calories from carbohydrates, they should aim for about 200 grams of carbohydrates daily. This amount would be calculated as follows:
45 x 1,800 calories = 810 calories
810 ÷ 4 = 202.5 grams of carbohydrates
You will have to evenly distribute your carbohydrate intake throughout the day. For best results, we recommend that you be advised by a nutritionist or diabetes educator, who will help you know what foods you should or can eat; they will also teach you, depending on your specific case, how much and when to eat according to your weight, your level of physical activity, your medications and personal blood glucose goals.
American Diabetes Association (ADA) [Pdf]. All About Carbohydrate Counting [published in 2019; accessed September 13, 2019]. Available at: https://professional.diabetes.org/sites/professional.diabetes.org/files/media/Todo_sobre_el_conteo_de_los_carbohidratos.pdf
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NDDIK) [website]. Carbohydrate Counting and Diabetes [published July 2015; accessed September 13, 2019]. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/informacion-de-la-salud/diabetes/informacion-general/nutricion-alimentacion-actividad-fisica/conteo-carbohidratos
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) [website]. Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins / Chapter 9 [accessed September 13, 2019]. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/w0073s/w0073s0d.htm