Carb Counting Those Challenging Foods

Learning to estimate the carb content of your favorite foods.

Lara Rondinelli By Lara Rondinelli, RD, LDN, CDE

You may have no problem counting carbs in your morning bowl of oatmeal, turkey sandwich or apple; but walk into a restaurant and order the chicken stir-fry and you have no idea how much carbohydrate you are eating. Some foods are definitely more challenging than others when it comes to estimating their carbohydrate content. Despite good attempts at estimating carb counts for various foods, many people often underestimate or overestimate carbohydrates and this can lead to high or low blood sugar levels.

Carbohydrate (carb) counting can be very helpful in controlling blood sugar levels, dosing rapid-acting insulin with meals (for those who use insulin), and in weight loss and weight management. The grams of total carbohydrate are listed on the Nutrition Facts label of packaged foods, and people are taught how to read labels and check grams of total carbohydrate. Carb counting is fairly simple when foods have a label, but it can be more challenging when eating out or eating mixed dishes, such as casseroles. A registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you learn carb counting in detail, but here are some tips to help you improve your skills for those most difficult foods.

  • Pastas and Rice. When ordering pasta or rice at a restaurant it may be difficult to estimate exactly how much you are eating. The very first step in carb counting is to begin measuring all the food you eat at home. One cup of cooked pasta or rice contains 45 grams of total carbohydrate. After you measure out this portion size a few times, you will see what it looks like on a plate or in a bowl and this will help you estimate portion sizes when eating out. You will soon realize that you usually receive three or more cups of cooked pasta when eating at many restaurants. It may be difficult to estimate how much carbohydrate is in the chicken stir-fry if the rice is mixed in with chicken and vegetables. In these cases, have the rice served on the side, separate from the chicken and vegetables.
  • Casseroles, soups, and stews. It may be difficult to carb count dishes that contain a variety of ingredients such as casseroles, lasagna, and chili. In general, one cup of a casserole dish, such as tuna noodle casserole, can contain between 25 and 30 grams of total carbohydrate. One cup of chili contains approximately 25 grams of carbohydrate, but you need to know what 1 cup looks like in a bowl. A small chili from Wendy's is 1 cup (8 ounces) and contains 23.4 grams total carbohydrate. Lasagna can be a tricky food for carb counting. The most important and most challenging factor with lasagna is to accurately estimate the portion size. For example a medium (13-ounce) piece of lasagna may contain 35 grams of total carbohydrate. But a 4" x 4.5" (large) piece of lasagna from the Olive Garden restaurant contains 54 grams. A basic kitchen scale can be purchased to determine the weight of foods. You may find that lasagna and some foods are simply better eaten at home where you can weigh portions.

Carb counting takes practice, measuring, record keeping, and good resources. Here are resources that can help with carb counting everyday foods and restaurant meals.

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Last Modified Date: June 21, 2013

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