Counting Carbs… Not Always So Clear Cut

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Ward Alper is a type 2 diabetic and chef who lives and eats decadently in Portland, Maine. Since his diagnosis more than four years ago, he has refocused his recipes and eating to support his diabetic health. In this article, Ward shares his experience with learning how to count carbs.

Many people choose to eat a low carbohydrate diet. For most diabetics, though, it becomes a necessary lifestyle change.

One of the first things a type 2 diabetic is told is limit your carbohydrate intake. In many cases you are given a few booklets with carbohydrate counts for a number of popular foods. This information is broken down into groups: breads, grains and cereals; starchy vegetables; fruits; dairy; non-starchy vegetables; proteins and fats.

Then there are the pictures: a closed fist to represent a cup, an open palm to represent a 3-oz. protein serving (for meat and fish, really?), a cupped palm to represent 1 oz. I know the pictures are to be used as guidelines. But does a 5’3 person usually have the same size fist and palm as say a 5’9 person? How is a person to judge? Is the shorter person cheating themselves out of grams of carbohydrates he or she could have? Is the taller person over-eating?


The first booklet I got recommended 45 grams of carbohydrates for breakfast, 60 grams each for lunch and dinner, and 15 grams as a snack. So the total is 180 grams of carbohydrates per day. Easy, peasy, right? Well, yes and no. As a vague set of guidelines, it is a start. But every diabetic can tolerate a different number of carbs in his or her diet. What works for me (60-80 per day) is far too much for others. It becomes a case of trial and error until you find out what is right for you.

This brings up the question of hoarding my carbs. If I did not use up my breakfast and lunch allotment, could I add them to my dinner allotment? The nutritionist at the diabetes clinic screamed at me an emphatic, “No. My doctor says, Yes. What to do, what to do? Which one is right? The better answer is that it is best to keep your carb levels even throughout the day to avoid spikes in blood sugar. The other thing is to test on a regular basis to see how the carbohydrates affect you.

Still, counting carbs can bring some challenges. For instance, the “rules of thumb that make no sense to me:

  1. You do not count an item as a carb serving if it has less than 5 grams of carbohydrates.
  2. You have to have 5 grams of fiber before you subtract the amount of fiber from the amount of carbohydrate grams.

Is any wonder that only about 5 to 8 percent of the people diagnosed with diabetes ever succeed in managing their disease?

Less Carbs, More Fat?

Meats, fish, chicken, whole dairy products and fats have no carbohydrates. The problem is if you are keeping the amount of those items within the guidelines recommended by most doctors (i.e., 3 oz. of meat), you are going to be mighty hungry. If you increase them, your cardiologist is going to be mighty angry with you.

There is, however, an interesting correlation between lowering your carbohydrates and being able to tolerate more fatty foods in your diet. Fatty foods do not necessarily make you feel fuller. For some diabetics, having less carbohydrates in their diet allows them to have more meats and cheeses. It works for me but not for everybody.

Although most diabetics can have some carbohydrates in their diets (every diabetic is different), the amounts need to be severely limited. It becomes necessary to fill their plates with more non-starchy vegetables. But emotionally it is more difficult for us diabetics to just substitute vegetables for high carbohydrate foods.

Counting Carbs

Here’s how much fun it is to count the carbs for two food groups.


The guidelines suggest a slice of bread is 15 grams of carbs. First question: How big and thick a slice is that bread? Easy answer is to read the label on the package. The next step should be to see how many grams of fiber that slice contains and subtract that number from the total number of carbs. Are you still with me? Not too hard to do this, but it does get more complicated. White flour breads are absorbed faster than whole grain breads, so white flour breads are considered “bad carbs and wheat flour breads are considered good carbs. The terms “good and “bad refer to the speed at which the carbohydrates are absorbed by the body.

I am a chef as well as a diabetic. I approach the control of my diet by preparing recipes that are lower in overall carbohydrates than many recipes. But taste is the end goal. For example: Sweet potato is a “better carbohydrate than white potato. But if you are preparing a Shepherd’s pie, the sweet potato may strike a false taste note. Then again, you should try it; it might be a more interesting flavor combination than the standard recipe.

Fruits and Vegetables

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Great! The problem is that there are no nutritional labels to read on apples or other fresh items at the “stupid market.

A small apple (4 oz.) is 15 carb grams. Is that slightly bigger than your open palm? Or is it the equivalent of four of your cupped hands? Not to worry. It is 4 ounces. You can take it to a scale and weigh it. If it is more than 4 ounces, start cutting away some of the apple. Don’t forget to take into consideration the fiber grams (about 1 gram for each ounce of apple). So if that 4 ounce apple has 15 grams of carbs and less the 4 grams of fiber, it “nets out to 11 grams of carbs. Now all you have to do is find someone to eat the parts of the apple you cut away. Then there is the question of whether or not the carb count includes the peel. If it does, is the peel part of the grams of fiber you subtract from the total?

Recipe: French Apple Custard Tart

Below is a recipe for a French Apple tart. As a chef I am going to tell you that this recipe is not a second-rate substitute for something else. It is just simply delicious. The substitution of ground nuts for some of the flour not only lowers the carbohydrates but also adds another layer of flavor to the crust (¾ cup of flour = 20 grams of carb. ¼ cup of ground nuts = 2 grams net carb).

What I do in my recipes is add up the total grams of carbohydrates, subtract the total grams of fiber, and divide that by the number of intended servings.

Check out Wards recipe for French Apple Custard Tart!

Get more nutrition tips and recipe ideas from Ward Alper, the Decadent Diabetic, on his website.