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Diabetes in Children: Counting Carbs

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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.

Key points

  • Carbohydrate is the nutrient that makes blood sugar rise the most.
  • 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.

More information about diabetes in children can be found in these topics:

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Carbohydrate counting is the recommended method of meal planning for people who have diabetes. It involves adding up the amount of carbohydrate in the foods you eat. Spreading carbohydrate evenly throughout the day helps prevent high blood sugar after eating, because carbohydrate affects blood sugar more than other nutrients. Within 2 hours after a person eats any kind of carbohydrate, most of it has changed to blood sugar. 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).

Foods that contain sugar usually have more total carbohydrate in a serving than foods that contain starch. Contrary to what you may have heard, your child can eat foods that contain sugar, such as cookies. But if foods that are high in sugar make up a large part of your child's meals and snacks, he or she is probably getting too much carbohydrate and is not eating enough of other, more nutritious foods.

Test Your Knowledge

Carbohydrate counting helps you know how much carbohydrate your child is eating during a meal.


Which of these foods contain carbohydrate?

Wheat bread, rice, peas, and oatmeal
Cheesecake, fat-free milk, and pears

Carbohydrate counting helps you know how much carbohydrate your child is eating during a meal or snack. Knowing this gives you a more accurate estimate of how much his or her blood sugar will rise after eating. The more carbohydrate he or she eats at one time, the higher the blood sugar level will rise. Carbohydrate counting also helps if:

  • Your child takes insulin before meals and his or her doctor wants to vary the dose according to the amount of carbohydrate in the meal. Even if your child doesn't take insulin, carbohydrate counting will help keep his or her blood sugar in a target range. For example, your child's doctor may suggest that your child take one unit of fast-acting insulin for every 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrate in a meal. This insulin-to-carbohydrate ratio is not the same for every person and will be decided by you and your child's doctor.
  • Your child wants to eat a high-sugar food, such as a piece of birthday cake. You can substitute the piece of cake for a serving of other carbohydrate food in your child's meal plan. If your child takes insulin, you can adjust the insulin dose to cover the extra carbohydrate. Your doctor or certified diabetes educator can teach you how to do this.

Spreading your child's carbohydrates throughout the day will help keep his or her blood sugar levels within a target range, preventing low or high blood sugar. Both low and high blood sugar levels can cause emergency situations. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage many body tissues and organs.

For more information on carbohydrate counting when using insulin, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Diabetes: Counting Carbs if You Use Insulin.

Test Your Knowledge

Carbohydrate counting will make it easy for you to work in something sweet for your child on holidays.


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 the carbohydrate counting formClick here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the food recordClick here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?).

Other helpful suggestions

  • Read food labels for carbohydrate and calorie content. Notice the serving size on the package. See a picture of a food labelClick here to see an illustration..
  • 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. See the Where to Go From Here section below for the address and phone number of the American Diabetes Association. You will still need to talk with a registered dietitian or a certified diabetes educator to make a plan that fits your child's needs.

Test Your Knowledge

It is a good idea to measure out food portions when you first start carb counting.


Now that you have read this information, you are ready to plan regular meals and snacks and calculate the amount of carbohydrate in your child's diet.

Talk with your child's doctor

If you have questions about this information, take it with you and discuss it with your child's doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins of the pages where you have questions.

If you and your child need help with carbohydrate counting or meal planning, ask to speak with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator. If you have been keeping a food diary for your child, take it with you when you visit the diabetes educator or registered dietitian.

If you would like more information on diabetes, the following resources are available:


American Diabetes Association (ADA)
1701 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383)
Email: [email protected]
Web Address:

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) is a national organization for health professionals and consumers. Almost every state has a local office. ADA sets the standards for the care of people with diabetes. Its focus is on research for the prevention and treatment of all types of diabetes. ADA provides patient and professional education mainly through its publications, which include the monthly magazine Diabetes Forecast, books, brochures, cookbooks and meal planning guides, and pamphlets. ADA also provides information for parents about caring for a child with diabetes.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerJohn Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical ReviewerStephen LaFranchi, MD - Pediatrics, Pediatric Endocrinology
Last RevisedJanuary 23, 2012

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