How to Count Carbs When You Are Starting a Low-Carb Diet

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Knowing how much carbohydrate you are eating is vital on a low-carb diet. One way to do this is to count carb grams. 

Depending on the diet plan you are on, you’ll need to know whether you’re supposed to count total carbohydrate or net carbohydrate. For example, the way most people with diabetes learn carb counting, total carb grams are used, whereas the Atkins diet uses net carbs. As a general rule, diets under about 50-60 grams of carb per day use net carbs, whereas diets with more carb (up to about 200 grams of carb per day is considered “low-carb” by some definitions) use total carbs in their counting.

Total Carbohydrate or Net Carbs?

dish with bread, cereal, rice and pasta

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Choosing the right type of carb counting can make a difference as to the success of your diet plan, so do pay attention to this.

What is total carbohydrate? A total carb count will include all the carbohydrate in the food, whatever the source.

What is a net carb count? When counting net carb, the fiber is subtracted from the rest of the carbohydrate. Some processed low-carb or sugar-free foods subtract sugar alcohols and other ingredients, but it pays to be careful about this.

Measuring Is the Most Important Thing

measuring cups and spoons

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It may sound obvious, but you can’t tell how much stuff is in a thing if you don’t know how much of the thing you have! It is very common for people to think they know about how much a tablespoon or half a cup or six inches is when actually their estimates can be way off.

This problem has been magnified in recent decades as serving sizes have gotten bigger. When I was growing up in the 1960’s a slice of bread or a muffin or a bagel was much smaller than it is now. Also, restaurant portions have famously expanded. A “serving” of pasta in a restaurant can easily contain three or four of the “servings” of yesteryear. Even fruits are bigger, so what used to be a medium-sized fruit now looks small to us.

You’ll need measuring cups and spoons, a ruler or tape measure, and hopefully a scale. Ideally, at this point, you will retrieve some measuring devices so you can see exactly what we are talking about.

Non-Starchy Vegetables


Photo: Alexandra Shytsman

Although non-starchy vegetables have some carbohydrate, they don’t have a lot, and the nutritional bang for the carb is huge with most of them.

On a low-carb diet, these vegetables take the place of starchier and “carbier” foods, and most people on low-carb diets end up doubling or tripling the amount of these vegetables they are eating. People on moderate-carb diets sometimes don’t count them at all.

That said, carb counting in vegetables can be tricky because of irregular shapes and different ways of cutting and cooking. For example, asparagus spears vary from very thin to as thick as your thumb. A “medium” Bell pepper according to the database may not be what we imagine. Counting carbs in vegetables can be a good time to get out the ruler or tape measure to be sure you know what 4 inches really looks like.

Greens are the lowest vegetables in carbs. Some low-carb plans even count greens as “free foods” since they are low in carb and are surrounded by so much fiber that they don’t tend to raise blood sugar — but check your own plan before deciding to do this.

Counting Carb in Fruit


Photo: Alexandra Shytsman

Fruits have a huge variation in how much carbohydrate they contain, from raspberries, at 3.5 grams of net carb per half cup, to raisins, at 31 grams for a quarter cup. In general, berries have the least sugar, and tropical and dried fruits have the most.

Fruits tend to be even more irregularly-shaped than vegetables, so sometimes you might need to measure. Another issue is that the average size of many fruits has grown over the years.

For example, a “medium” banana is about 7 inches long. Just try to find a 7-inch banana – all the ones in the stores where I shop are large. Same with apples – a medium is 3 inches across, which most people would think of as small.

Beans and Starchy Vegetables

Woman eating soup with beans


If you have room in your carb allotment, beans, and the starchier vegetables are an excellent choice, because they tend to be very nutrient-dense compared to other higher-carb foods. In addition, beans have a lot of slowly-digested carbohydrates and resistant starch, particularly if you soak and cook them yourself rather than buying canned beans.

A half-cup of beans is approximately 15 grams of carb, with the exception of soybeans.​

Starchy vegetables vary a lot in how many carbs they have. Mashed potatoes are another one of those “half a cup is about 15 grams of carb” deals.

Grains, Including Pasta


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Note: Eating grain foods is not a requirement! The website of the American Diabetes Association says: If you are going to eat grain foods, pick the ones that are the most nutritious. Choose whole grains.

Diabetes educators use 15 grams of carbohydrate as a measure of serving size. For grains, this is about half a cup of cooked grains, except for rice and pasta, where a serving is 1/3 of a cup.

Check out the carb counts for:

  • Amaranth
  • Corn Meal (including grits, polenta, and popcorn)
  • Oats (including several types of cooked oats)
  • Quinoa
  • Rice

Baked Goods

English muffin

Photo: Alexandra Shytsman

The only real way to find the amount of carbohydrate in cookies, cakes, pies, breads, etc, is to read the label and pay very close attention to the serving size.

Below are some rough estimates, based on 15 grams for a serving:

  • One slice bread (note that these days many breads have larger slices than the standard size, so be sure to check the label)
  • One 6-inch tortilla, flour or corn
  • ½ of a biscuit, or one small (2 inches in diameter)
  • ½ of an English muffin
  • ¼ of a large bagel
  • ⅓ of a large muffin, or one small muffin (2½ inches across)
  • 4-6 crackers
  • 3 vanilla wafers
  • 1 small brownie or cake without frosting (2-inch square)

Dairy Foods

dairy foods - milk, cheese, yogurt

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A cup of cow’s milk has 11 to 12 grams of carb in it, which comes from the sugar (lactose) in milk. In almost every other form of dairy product some of the lactose is removed, either through fermentation (yogurt, cheese) or because the cream is used more than the milk (heavy cream). Because the bacteria eat the lactose, there may even be less carb in yogurt than the label says. Of course, once the manufacturers start adding sugar (yogurt is the worst), all bets are off.

Example: an ounce of cheese usually has between half a gram and one gram of carbohydrate (though processed cheeses can have more). 

Nuts and Seeds


Photo: Alexandra Shytsman

Nuts and seeds are great low-carb foods because they often have a lot of the same nutrients as whole grains for a fraction of the carbohydrate, plus healthy fats and often more fiber.

Other than chestnuts and cashews (which are starchier), most nuts and seeds have between two and four grams of net carb per ounce. 

Everything Else

man checking nutrition labels on products in grocery store

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We’ve now covered the major categories of foods that have carbohydrate in them. Almost everything else is going to have a nutrition label, so you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself. Mobile apps and pocket carb-counting books can also be helpful.

Just be sure to read labels carefully, measure carefully, know your carb limit, and you’ll do fine!

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