How to Calculate Carbs

Three Methods:Reading Food LabelsCalculating the Carbs You EatPlanning for Carbs in Your Diet

Carbohydrates come in two forms - complex and simple. The human body turns all types of carbs into glucose or blood sugar. However, complex carbs allow glucose levels to rise slowly, whereas simple carbs are converted to glucose very quickly. Complex carbs are found in foods like peas, beans, whole grains and vegetables. Foods that contain complex carbs also contain a lot of other valuable sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre.[1] Simple carbs are found in fruits, milk, dairy products, candy, syrups, soda and any type of processed or refined sugar.[2] Complex carbs and simple carbs like fruit, milk and other dairy products, should all be included in a healthy diet.

Method 1
Reading Food Labels

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    Know what items are required on food labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains the labelling requirements of all food products in the United States. It is important to understand what items must be displayed on food labels, where they have to be displayed, and what those items actually mean.
    • Food manufacturers must place a "statement of identity" and the net quantity or amount contained in the package on the “principal display panel” or PDP. This is the portion of the label you can see when the product is sitting on a shelf.[3]
    • The “statement of identity” is not considered the brand name, although that is also most likely on the PDP. Rather, it must be a name that properly describes what the product is (e.g. tomato soup, uncooked pasta, etc.).[4]
    • Even in the United States, food labels are required to include both metric and imperial measurements.[5]
    • Food manufacturers must also include an “information panel” or IP on their products. The IP must be the next panel or area on the package to the immediate right of the PDP. Information regarding the name and address of the manufacturer, the name of the distributor, ingredients, nutritional and allergy information, must all be displayed on this panel if they weren’t also displayed on the PDP.
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    Interpret the ingredient list. An ingredient list must contain all ingredients in descending order of predominance and weight (i.e. the most abundant item is listed first). Ingredient lists must include added water that may have been used when packaging the product. Plus, ingredient names must be the common names recognizable to the average person (e.g. sugar instead of sucrose).[6]
    • If the product contains any type of chemical preservative, that too must be included in the ingredient list. And in addition to the name of the preservative, a brief description of what the chemical does must also be included (e.g. “Ascorbic Acid to Promote Colour Retention).
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    Understand what allergy labels mean. The Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) depicts what items must be listed as allergens on a food label. Meat, poultry and egg products also have special requirements for labelling that are controlled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). FALCPA considers milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans as “major” allergens. These items are responsible for about 90% of the food allergies experienced by Americans. Only these “major” allergens need to be listed on the package.[7]
    • Raw agricultural items like fruits and vegetables do not require FALCPA labels.
    • Only crustacean shellfish are considered allergens, including crab, lobster, shrimp, etc. Oysters, muscles, etc., are not considered allergens.
    • While allergens must also be included in ingredient lists, FALCPA regulations require them to be listed separately so they stand out (e.g. "Contains eggs, milk.").
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    Develop an understanding of nutritional labels. Nutritional labels are required for all food products (except those listed below). However, the FDA does not dictate how these amounts are calculated. This means that a food manufacturer can use calculations that apply to their product “on average” rather than the actual measured amount in the packaging. In addition, the FDA expects manufacturers to be compliant and does not double-check their nutritional calculations.[8]
    • Note that there are exemptions as to what products require a nutritional label. The following foods do not require an actual label (although you can certainly ask for the information): products sold individually via the deli or bakery counter (not packaged), most spices, fresh produce and seafood, individual items that are packaged within a multi-pack (only the outside packaging requires a nutritional label), and food items that are given away and not for sale.
    • Foods with less than 5 calories per serving can have “calorie free” on the packaging and 0 calories on the nutritional label.
    • For items with 50 calories per serving or less, the number can be rounded to the nearest 5 calorie increment. For items with more than 50 calories, the number can be rounded to the nearest 10 calorie increment.
    • Foods with less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving can have 0 grams of fat on the nutritional label. Foods with between 0.5 and 5 grams of fat can be rounded to the nearest ½ gram. Foods with more than 5 grams of fat can be rounded to the nearest whole gram.
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    Be aware of what “a good source of” and “high” nutrient claims mean. The FDA dictates which types of nutrient content claims (NCC) can be used on food packaging. Each of those NCCs has specific requirements that must be met before the claim can be displayed on packaging.[9]
    • A product is considered “a good source of” something (e.g. fibre) if the product contains 10-19% of the daily recommended amount of that item (e.g. “a good source of fibre” can be used if the product contains 15% of your daily recommended intake of fibre).
    • A product is considered “high” in something (e.g. fibre) if the product contains at least 20% of the daily recommended amount of that item (e.g. a product can be considered “high in fibre" if the product contains 25% of your daily recommended intake of fibre).
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    Make sure you understand what “low,” “light” and “free” actually mean. Nutrient content claims (NCCs) include things like “low fat,” “fat free,” “sugar free,” etc. Manufacturers are not allowed to make up non-approved claims for their products - for example, “minor fat” or something similar.[10]
    • Manufacturers are not allowed to use the words “low” or “free” on products that have not been specially processed (e.g. they cannot claim frozen peas are “low in fat”).
    • “Free” and “low” claims can only be made on products that also have a “regular” version. The “low” or “free” version must be processed such that it contains less of a specific item (like fat or sugar, etc.) than the “regular” version.
    • When making a “light,” “reduced,” “less,” “fewer,” “more” or “added” claim, the label must include: the % by which the food has been modified; the name of the reference food; and the amount of the nutrient that is in both the labelled product and the reference product. For example, “50% less fat than xxx. Light xxx = 4g fat; Regular xxx = 8g fat, per serving."
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    Recognize when a product is considered “healthy” or “fresh.” Like other nutrient content claims (NCCs), only foods that meet certain criteria can include the words “healthy” or “fresh” on the packaging.[11]
    • A product can be labeled “healthy” when it can claim all the following: low in total fat, low in saturated fat, less than 480 grams of sodium (for a regular sized serving), has cholesterol low enough not to be listed, and contains at least 10% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fibre.
    • A product can be labelled “fresh” only when it is in its raw form and has not been frozen or subjected to any type of thermal processing or preservation.
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    Determine if the "% of" daily value on the label is appropriate for you. All nutritional labels on food products must contain a table with a specific list of nutrients. Nutrients can be excluded from the table only under certain circumstances. And the table must contain both the amount of that nutrient per serving and the % that nutrient represents as compared to Recommended Daily Values (RDVs). However, the RDVs of each nutrient is calculated for someone who has a caloric intake of 2,000 calories. Remember that many people consume less than 2,000 calories per day. Therefore, these percentages are simply a guideline and should be used as such.[12]
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    Understand how carbohydrates are calculated for nutritional labels. The FDA requires that food manufacturers calculate total carbohydrates in their food with the following formula: Total Carbohydrates = Total Weight of Food Serving - (Weight of Crude Protein + Weight of Total Fat + Weight of Moisture + Weight of Ash). Sugar and fibre are considered carbohydrates and must be listed separately on a nutritional label.[13]
    • Food manufacturers may use the terms “less than 1 gram,” “contains less than 1 gram” or “not a significant source of dietary fibre/sugar” if the product has less than 1 gram of fibre and/or sugar. They do not need to calculate the exact quantity.

Method 2
Calculating the Carbs You Eat

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    Determine how much of your diet should consist of carbs. Diets for the majority of people should have 40-60% of their calories from carbohydrates. This may be lower in people with diabetes, PCOS, and other medical conditions.[14] Carbohydrates can be found in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and grains, but not meat. One gram of carbs is, on average, equal to 4 calories.[15]
    • Regardless of what carb counting method or calculation you use, remember that carbs are not the only item you need to count and calculate as part of your diet. You also need to include fat and protein to ensure you’re eating a balanced diet. And it sure doesn’t hurt to watch your sodium intake.
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    Convert carbs into food group servings. One way to determine how many carbs you can eat is to turn the fruits, vegetables, dairy products and grains into servings per day. The number of servings per day will depend on your age and gender. You can view a table of serving amounts here - On average, adults of both genders should consume the following ranges of servings per day:
    • Grains = 5-8 servings per day. A grain serving can include things like: 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal, ½ cup of rice, or ⅓ cup of cooked pasta. At least half your grain servings should be whole grains.
    • Fruits & Vegetables = 4-10 servings day.[16] A fruit or vegetable serving can include things like: ½ cup of 100% fruit or vegetable juice, 1 large carrot, 1 cup of leafy greens, 1 medium apple, ½ cup of berries, or 20 grapes.[17]
    • Dairy Products = 2-3 servings per day.[18] A dairy product serving can include things like: 1 cup of skim milk, 50 grams of hard cheese, or ¾ cup of yogurt.[19]
    • Don’t forget that you also need to consume 1-3 servings of meats or meat alternatives every day, which is where you’ll get the majority of your protein.[20] One serving can include things like: 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, ½ cup of lean meats or ¾ cups of tofu.[21]
    • While not listed exclusively as part of the food guide, a healthy diet should also include a small amount of unsaturated fats every day. For the average person this amount should be 2-3 tablespoons. Unsaturated fats would include vegetable oils, oil-based salad dressings, and soft non-hydrogenated margarine.[22]
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    Learn to measure your food servings with a scale. Another way to calculate how many carbs are in a particular item, or to determine the proper serving size of an item, is to use its weight. Kitchen scales can be found in a large variety of stores, and are relatively inexpensive.
    • To calculate the grams of carbs in your food based on the weight, you need to know two things: the weight of the food item; and the “factor” for that food item. There is a different factor for each type of food (e.g. bread has a factor of 15, which means there are 15 grams of carbs for every ounce of bread).[23]
    • You can find a list of food factors on the University of California’s Diabetes Education Online - (Note - the website is designed for diabetics, but the food factors are applicable to anyone.)
    • Example, let’s say you want to know how many carbs are in the bowl of strawberries you want to have for a snack. First, weigh the strawberries. Let’s say you determine that you have 10 ounces of strawberries. Second, look up the food factor for strawberries, which is 2.17. Third, multiply the weight and the food factor = 10 ounces x 2.17 = 21.7 grams of carbs.
    • You can also use weight to determine how many servings are in an item of food. For example, one serving of lean meat or poultry is considered to be ½ a cup. This is equivalent to 2.5 ounces or 75 grams. If you have a 4 ounce piece of cooked chicken, divide by 2.5 and you’ll find that piece of chicken counts as 1.6 servings.[24]
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    Estimate your food servings visually. Visual estimations for things like apples, oranges, bananas, eggs, or slices of bread or bagels, are easy to determine. But measuring things like cheese, meat or loose items can be more difficult to estimate. There are several visualizations that can be used to help you measure your food servings, especially when you’re not at home, or not making the food yourself.
    • Dry cereal - a 1 cup serving looks like the size of a baseball.
    • Cooked cereal, rice or pasta - a ½ cup serving looks like the size of half a baseball.
    • Orange, apple or pear - 1 “small” fruit looks like the size of a tennis ball.
    • Raisins - a ¼ cup serving looks like the size of a golf ball.
    • Baked potato - 1 “medium” potato looks like the size of a mouse you’d use for your computer.
    • Chopped vegetables or salad mix - a 1 cup serving would look like the size of a baseball, or a handful.
    • Hard cheese - a 50 gram serving is almost equivalent to a 1.5 ounce serving which looks like the size of a 9 volt battery (the rectangle ones).
    • Lean beef or poultry - a ½ cup serving will look the size of a deck of cards.
    • Grilled or baked fish - a ½ cup serving will look like the size of a chequebook.
    • Margarine - a 1 teaspoon serving looks like the size of a postage stamp, and there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon.
    • Salad dressing or oil - a 1 teaspoon serving look like it would fill the cap of a normal-sized water bottle.
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    Calculate how many carbs are in the packaged foods you eat. A nutritional label on a package of food will list the number of carbs it contains. But there are a couple of things you need to remember when using these numbers to calculate how many carbs you’re eating.[25]
    • The nutritional information is based on a serving size that is determined by the manufacturer. In some cases, like a individual carton of yogurt, the serving size equals the actual amount you’re likely to consume. In other cases, like cold cereal, the serving size may equal a much smaller amount, maybe ½ or ⅓, of what you would normally eat.
    • You will need to multiply the number of carbohydrates per serving on the nutrition label by the number of servings you actually consume. For example, if the label for a cold cereal says there are 10 grams of carbs per ½ cup of cereal, but you’re going to eat 1 ½ cups of cereal, you will need to multiply 10 grams by 3 to determine the actual carbs you’ll be consuming. In this example, it would be 30 grams.
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    Do not forget there are good carbs. Nutritional labels will list Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fibre, and Sugars. Dietary fibre and sugar are both carbs, but your body doesn’t use them the same way. Fibre is not digested by your body, rather, your body simply passes fibre all the way through. Fibre can help with constipation and overall bowel health, lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar levels, and help you lose weight.[26]
    • Men 50 or younger should eat 38 grams of fibre per day. Men over 50 should eat 30 grams per day.
    • Women 50 or younger should eat 25 grams of fibre per day. Women over 50 should eat 21 grams per day.
    • Remember that fibre is a carbohydrate, so the fibre grams count as part of your carbohydrate intake.
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    Figure out your current carb consumption. Depending on what you are attempting to do with your diet, calculating the amount of carbs you’re currently consuming can be helpful. If you are planning to lose or gain weight in the future, knowing how many calories you are currently consuming will help to determine how many calories you have to reduce or add per day. If you aren’t planning to alter your weight, you can use this opportunity to develop a healthier eating plan that includes healthier carbs.[27]
    • Start by getting yourself a journal, or creating a tracking spreadsheet on your computer.
    • On a daily basis (or even throughout the day) keep track of exactly what you eat and drink, including the amounts or weights.
    • Track yourself for one week, assuming the week you’re tracking is an average week for you. Don’t forget to include things like sauces, butter or margarine, dressings, etc.[28]
    • If you eat any packaged food, keep track of the information from the nutritional label in your journal.
    • If you eat at a restaurant, try to locate their nutritional breakdowns via their websites. Or ask your server for a brochure.
    • For other types of food, use the USDA’s Super Tracker to look up the nutritional values (
    • Add up the number of calories, total carbs, and dietary fibre for each day. It is probably also a good idea to include fat and protein in your calculations since your overall diet plan will need to take these into account.
    • Use your calculations as a starting point for making a future plan. There are useful apps available now for phones that allow people to track their daily intake of all nutrients; carbohydrates included.

Method 3
Planning for Carbs in Your Diet

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    Give yourself a goal. Before you can do any planning, you need to determine what your goals are. Do you want to maintain your weight, but maybe make healthier choices? Do you want to lose or gain weight? Take the number of calories you currently consume per day as a starting point and work to determine the number of calories you will need to consume in the future to meet your goals.
    • Remember that it takes a reduction of 500 calories per day (on average) to lose one pound per week.[29] For most people, this reduction can come from carbohydrates. Remember not to cut down any macro-nutrient group too low. Avoid cutting back too far on protein and healthy fat as both as used from repair and hormone production.
    • Example: Say your current caloric intake was calculated to be 2,000 per day. You want to lose some weight, so you decide you need to cut back to 1,500 calories per day to do that safely. In order to maintain a healthy diet, 40-60% of those calories need to come from carbs. To make things easy, let’s assume you want to have 50% of your calories come from carbs. Multiply your daily calorie goal of 1,500 by 50% to get 750 calories per day from carbs. Now divide the 750 calories per day by 4 (as there are 4 calories in every carb) to get 187.5 grams of carbs per day. You now have your daily caloric and carb intake amounts.[30]
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    Develop a meal plan. Using your calculated number of calories and carbs per day, start making yourself a meal plan. Use nutritional labels on food packages and the USDA’s Super Tracker ( to help you determine the number of calories and carbs in each item you include in your plan. The Super Tracker is also a great online tool to make a plan, as a ton of nutritional information is already included.[31]
    • The Super Tracker will also remind you that daily exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
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    Remember to include fibre every day. You should try to eat something with at least 5 grams of fibre at breakfast, to start your day. Half of the grains you eat every day should be whole grains. Eat breads that have at least 2 grams of fibre per serving (a bread serving is normally 1 slice). Substitute whole gran flour for white flour when baking. Add fresh or frozen vegetables to foods like soups and sauces. Add beans, peas or lentils to your soup or salad.[32]
    • Add unprocessed wheat bran to cereals to increase the amount of fibre.
    • Try brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole wheat pasta, and bulgur as opposed to the “white” versions.
    • When substituting whole wheat flour for white flour when baking bread, you may need to add more yeast or allow the dough to rise for a longer period of time. If baking powder is part of the recipe, increase it by 1 teaspoon for every 3 cups of whole grain flour.
    • Apples, bananas, oranges, pears and berries are great sources of fibre and can easily be eaten as a snack.
    • Nuts and dried fruit also have a lot of fibre, but some dried fruit may be high in sugar.
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    Do not forget to include nutrients from beverages. Everything you put in your mouth, even gum, can contribute to your daily caloric intake. Beverages, however, may be the most forgotten or overlooked. Water doesn’t have any calories, but it’s about the only beverage you don’t have to worry about. And while coffee or tea on their own may not be high in calories, you do have to count the milk, cream or sugar you put in them. In general, sugary drinks are the worst culprit. Non-diet soda, energy drinks, juice and added sugar in tea and coffee will add your calories up very quickly.[33]
    • Remember that fruit juice is not the same as eating a piece of fruit. Consuming the same calorie level of juice vs. whole fruit does not mean that those two foods are equal. In whole fruit, fiber is included which helps to regulate the blood sugar spike that comes with consuming carbohydrates. Juices have little to no fiber causing them to spike blood sugar. Choose whole over juice.



  • People with certain medical conditions, like diabetes, should always consult their doctor before changing their diet.

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