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Diabetes in Children: Counting Carbs

Overview

Overview

Carbohydrate counting is a skill that can help you and your child plan his or her meals to manage diabetes and control blood sugar. Carbohydrate counting also can allow your child to eat a variety of foods, just like other kids, and to increase his or her sense of control and confidence in managing diabetes.

When you and your child know how much carbohydrate is in food, you can spread it throughout the day and control portion sizes. This helps to keep your child's blood sugar in his or her target range after meals. High blood sugar can make your child feel tired and thirsty and, over time, can damage many body organs and tissues.

  • Carbohydrate is the nutrient that makes blood sugar rise the most. Foods that contain carbohydrate include:
    • Fruits and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes and corn).
    • Milk and yogurt.
    • Starchy foods (such as breads, cereals, rice, and pasta).
    • Sugary foods (such as candy and cakes).
  • Using this method to provide consistent carbohydrate at each meal helps a child keep blood sugar at his or her target level.
  • You need to consult a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to help you and your child understand and use carbohydrate counting.

Why is carbohydrate (carb) counting important for a child who has diabetes?

Carbohydrate counting can help you and your child manage diabetes and control blood sugar. Carb counting can allow your child to eat a variety of foods, just like other kids. It can also help your child feel more in control and more confident in managing diabetes.

Counting carbohydrates (carbs) when your child has diabetes: Overview

Managing the amount of carbohydrate (carbs) your child eats is an important part of planning healthy meals. Carbohydrate counting means you plan meals and snacks for your child based on the amount of carbohydrate in each food.

  • Learn which foods have carbs.

    It also helps to know the amount of carbs in different foods.

    • Bread and pasta have about 15 grams of carbs in a serving. A serving is 1 slice of bread or 1/3 cup cooked pasta.
    • Fruits have 15 grams of carbs in a serving. A serving is 1 small fresh fruit, such as an apple or orange.
    • Milk and no-sugar added yogurt have 15 grams of carbs per serving. A serving is 1 cup of milk or ¾ cup (6 oz) of no-sugar added yogurt.
    • Starchy vegetables have 15 grams of carbs in a serving. A serving is ½ cup of mashed potatoes or ½ cup cooked corn.
  • Get help from a registered dietitian or a certified diabetes educator to learn how to count carbs.

How do you count carbohydrates?

How do you use carbohydrate counting?

Here are some ways to help you and your child count the carbohydrate content of his or her food and spread the amount throughout the day. Your child will have the best chance of success if you and other members of the family also eat a variety of healthy foods.

Establish a meal plan

  • Talk with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to help you plan the amount of carbohydrate to include in your child's meals and snacks. You can use a carbohydrate counting form .
  • Learn what makes a standard portion of carbohydrate foods. Each serving size or standard portion contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate. It might be helpful to measure your food portions when you are first learning what makes up a standard portion.
  • Learn how to count either grams or servings of carbohydrate.
    • Counting grams: For example, if you want to eat 45 grams of carbohydrate, you would choose three servings (3 servings x 15 grams per serving = 45 grams). So for breakfast, you could choose three servings of different foods (such as oatmeal, milk, and half of a banana) or three servings of the same food (such as a larger serving of oatmeal).
    • Counting servings: In this system, 15 grams equals 1 carbohydrate serving. Instead of counting 45 grams of carbohydrate at breakfast, you would count 3 carbohydrate servings.
  • Learn the standard portions of foods that contain protein. Protein foods, such as meat and cheese, are an important part of a balanced diet.
  • Limit saturated fat. Talk with a registered dietitian about how much fat to include in your child's meals.

Start counting

  • Use the meal plan to select food for your child's meals and snacks. Remember, high-sugar foods or sweets should be eaten only sometimes and in smaller servings than starches, fruits, and milk.
  • Serve standard portions. It might be helpful to measure your food when you are first learning what makes up a standard portion.
  • Check your child's blood sugar level often. If you check it before and 1 to 2 hours after a meal, you will be able to see how the food your child eats affects his or her blood sugar.
  • If your child needs mealtime insulin, you might be taught to adjust the amount of insulin needed to cover the amount of carbohydrate your child eats.
  • Record what your child eats and his or her blood sugar results in a food record. At each regular visit with a certified diabetes educator or a registered dietitian, or whenever you think the meal plan needs a change, you can review your food record.

Other helpful suggestions

  • Read food labels for carbohydrate and calorie content. Notice the serving size on the package.
  • Get more help. The American Diabetes Association offers booklets that can help you learn how to count carbohydrates, measure and weigh food, and read food labels.

What are the ways to count carbohydrates?

Your doctor, registered dietitian, or certified diabetes educator may suggest that you use one of two ways to count carbohydrates in your diet. Use the method that is easiest for you.

For both, 15 grams of carbohydrate equals one serving. You can either:

Count grams of carbohydrates.

For example, if you want to eat 45 grams of carbohydrates, you would choose three servings of carbohydrate food (3 servings x 15 grams per serving = 45 grams). You could choose one serving of three different foods (such as oatmeal, milk, and half of a banana) or three servings of the same food (such as a larger serving of oatmeal).

Count servings of carbohydrates.

Instead of counting grams of carbohydrates, you would count 3 carbohydrate servings.

Helping your child who has diabetes eat well

Here are some things you can do to help your child who has diabetes enjoy meals and stay healthy.

  • Follow your child's meal plan to know how much carbohydrate your child needs for meals and snacks.

    You want your child to eat some at all meals. But you don't want your child to eat too much at one time.

    Carbohydrate raises blood sugar more than any other nutrient. It's found in sugar, breads, and cereals. It's also found in fruit, starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, milk, and yogurt.

  • Make sure your child eats a variety of foods.

    Plan meals to include a variety of foods. This includes grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, and protein foods.

  • Learn how many carbs are in a serving size of food.

    A dietitian or diabetes educator can help you and your child keep track of carbs.

  • Try using the plate method to plan your child's meals.

    It's an easy way to make sure that your child has a balanced meal.

    Divide your child's plate by types of foods. Place non-starchy vegetables on half the plate, protein foods on a fourth of the plate, and carbohydrate foods on the final fourth of the plate.

  • Talk to your dietitian or diabetes educator about ways to add limited sweets.

    Your child can eat sweets once in a while. But you need to count the amount of carbs as part the daily amount.

  • Plan meals to include foods that contain some protein, fat, and fiber.

    These foods don't raise blood sugar as much as carbohydrates do.

How can you encourage good nutrition in your child who has diabetes?

  • Learn which foods have carbohydrate (carbs). And learn how much is okay for your child. A dietitian or diabetes educator can help you and your child keep track of carbs.
  • Follow your child's meal plan to know how much carbohydrate your child needs for meals and snacks.
  • If your child needs mealtime insulin, you might be taught to adjust the amount of insulin needed to cover the amount of carbohydrate your child eats.
  • Plan meals to include a variety of foods. This includes grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, and protein foods.
  • Try using the plate method to plan your child's meals. It's an easy way to make sure that your child has a balanced meal. Divide your child's plate by types of foods. Place non-starchy vegetables on half the plate, protein foods on a fourth of the plate, and carbohydrate foods on the final fourth of the plate.
  • Talk to your dietitian or diabetes educator about ways to add limited sweets. Your child can eat sweets once in a while. But you need to count the amount of carbs as part the daily amount.
  • Plan meals to include foods that contain some protein, fat, and fiber. These foods don't raise blood sugar as much as carbohydrates do.

When your child eats out

  • It's a good idea for you and your child to learn to estimate the serving sizes of foods that have carbohydrate. If you measure food at home, it will be easier to estimate the amount in a serving of restaurant food.
  • If the meal you order for your child has too much carbohydrate (such as potatoes, corn, or baked beans), ask to have a low-carbohydrate food instead. Ask for a salad or green vegetables.
  • If your child uses insulin, check your child's blood sugar before and after eating out. This can help you and your child plan how much to eat in the future.

Credits

Current as of: September 20, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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