June 7, 2010

Want to Count Carbs More Accurately? Build Your Own Custom Carb Database

For people with type 1 or 2 diabetes carbohydrate, or carb, counting has evolved to be the most common method taught to help you plan meals and, if you take insulin, gauge your insulin doses. Carb counting is based on research showing that it’s the total amount of carbohydrate you eat that most impacts your blood glucose levels after you eat. (Check out two of my articles about the fine art of carbohydrate counting in Diabetic Living magazine Solving
the Carb Puzzle
and Count Carbs with Confidence.)

Oh yes, there are plenty of if, ands and buts about how foods affect blood glucose, from the amount of fiber and fat in meals, how quickly (or slowly) you eat, to mention just a few factors.

But is carb counting as simple as we dietitians/diabetes educators make it sound? Heck no! And for a wide variety of reasons several which have been noted in blogs on diabetesmine.com by Tenderich and others with diabetes.

For starters, even the carb counts on the nutrition facts labels on our foods are only so accurate (if inspected per FDA only 80% of samples need to be within 80% of the count. However, I trust that most companies try their best to provide as accurate as possible info). And really how accurately do you measure your food portions? Then consider the way we eat today: It’s not just a portion of meat, starch, vegetables on a plate with milk and fruit on the side. We eat foods with combinations of ingredients, from lasagna to burritos; to entrée salads with bits of this and that or mixed dishes with dozens of ingredients. We eat a third of our calories as restaurant foods, from burgers and fries, subs, etc. to a range of ethnic cuisines – probably the toughest carb counts of all to nail down.

Sure, to get precise carb counts you can look at the Total Carbohydrates on Nutrition Facts labels, look up the counts for fast foods on the restaurants’ websites, purchase a thick book filled with counts, search through a depthy online databases or access a handy dandy nutrient database app. Yes, all excellent resources to help you zero in on your carb counts.

But…(you knew that was coming) though there's access to more nutrition information than ever before are you still using the WAG (wild-ass-guess) method?

Here’s my strategy…Build Your Own Custom Carb Database. Fill it with carb counts for just the foods and meals you eat day in, day out.

My premise: we’re creatures of habit when it comes to the foods we eat and the way we combine these foods into meals and snacks. Think about it: Do you assemble meals and snacks from the same short list of about 100 foods day after day? Do you frequent the same restaurants and generally order the same items? The answer is likely yes.

Reality is that at least 80% of the time you eat the same 100 foods, combined into similar meals. That’s not a bad thing, it’s human behavior. Use this to your advantage! Spend a couple of hours one time building your top 100 list, then revise it on occasion.

Take these steps:

1. Brainstorm and record a list of the foods you regularly eat. Look in your refrigerator, pantry, and freezer.

2. Measure and record the amounts of these foods you REALLY eat. (This is a critical step. It’s best to do this over a few weeks as you eat them and, when possible, with measuring equipment by your side).

3. Determine the carb counts from the various sources – Nutrition Facts labels, nutrient databases, restaurant websites (if available) or, the last resort, make an educated guess.

4. Total the carb counts for the common meals and snacks you eat.

5. Put this information in a format that is portable for you. Keep it handy in a wallet, on your blackberry, iphone, droid, etc.

Then…overtime and on occasion, take a couple of hours to look through your list. Are there foods you no longer eat? Others you’ve started to eat? Do you have observations about how this or that food affects your blood glucose?Jot down notes. Start to create your personal glycemic impact history.

Building Your Own Custom Carb Database will save you hours in the long run. It may dramatically improve your carb counts and, hopefully, your glucose control. Research does show the more accurate your carb counts, the better your glucose control.

Please give this a try and do let me know how it goes.