One other note regarding label reading: Be careful about serving sizes. The serving size listed on the label may not be what you normally consume. If the portion you eat is smaller or larger than the stated serving size, you will need to adjust the carbohydrate total accordingly. If a serving size is 1/2 cup and you have 1 cup, you will need to double the carbohydrate amount.
As useful as food labels are, they can only help when they are available. Unpackaged foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, many baked goods, restaurant foods, and prepared foods such as those sold at a deli or salad bar typically do not carry a label. For these types of foods, a printed or electronic nutrient listing can really help, and several are readily available in book or booklet form, on the Internet, or as downloads to a personal computer or digital assistant. Some include comprehensive nutrient information for the foods listed, while others list only certain nutrients, such as carbohydrate and fiber.
Many of these listings are based on the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, which is itself searchable online. Some books and brochures are small and light enough to carry with you for help with food decisions when grocery shopping or dining out. Similarly, some electronic listings can be downloaded to a personal digital assistant, so you never have to be without needed nutrient information. Information on fast-food items is included in most lists, but you can also check the Web sites of individual restaurants, most of which post nutrient information for their menu items.
For a list of some useful resources, see page “Resources.”
Learn to estimate portions
A very practical technique for counting carbohydrates is the portion conversion method. Portion conversion involves estimating the volume of a serving of food by comparing it to a common object such as your fist, a soft drink can, or a milk carton, and then converting the volume into a carbohydrate count based on the typical carbohydrate content for a known amount of that type of food. This approach is particularly useful when having a complex meal (such as spaghetti and meatballs), dining out, or eating foods that vary in size (such as fruits and potatoes).
Here’s an example of how it works: You know (because you checked in a reliable resource) that one cup of cooked pasta contains about 40 grams of carbohydrate. You estimate that the portion of pasta you’re about to eat is 1 1/2 cups by visually comparing the amount of pasta on your plate to a 12-ounce soft drink can. You then do the math (40 grams x 1 1/2 cups) to determine that you’re about to eat 60 grams of carbohydrate.
Here are some common “measuring devices” that can be used to mentally calculate portions:
Average adult’s fist = 1 cup
Baseball = 1 cup
Child’s fist = 1/2 cup
Cupped hand = 1/2 cup
Deck of cards = 1/3 cup
Half-pint of milk = 1 cup
12-ounce soft drink can = 1 1/2 cups
When estimating portions, it is helpful to have the measuring device right next to the food item. For instance, placing your fist next to a salad will allow you to estimate the number of cups of salad. Having a half-pint of milk or a 12-ounce can of soda next to a piece of fruit will allow you to do the same. Be sure to count only the portion that you are actually going to eat. The rind or inedible peel on fruit, for example, should not be counted.
The best way to fine-tune your portion size estimation skills is through practice. Estimate the volume of a food item using your fist or another item of known volume for comparison, then either look up the exact volume on the food’s label or place it in a measuring cup. Doing this repeatedly will train your eye to estimate portions more accurately.