What Counts as a Carb Serving?

Know the different types of carbohydrates to improve your energy levels and nutrition.


By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN


“Good” carbs, “bad” carbs, low-carb, high-carb—it can be confusing sometimes to figure out what foods even count as a carbohydrate serving! Complex carbohydrates are those sources which break down more slowly and will keep you satisfied and energized for longer by keeping your blood sugar more stable than their “simple” counterparts. One serving of carbohydrate is 15 grams, but regardless of what source it comes from, so you want to make the most of the carbs you are eating by choosing nutrient-dense choices. Here are the different types of carbohydrates to help demystify this food group.


Wheat is perhaps the most well-known grain, but there are many varieties: oats, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, amaranth, quinoa, and sorghum, just to name a few.

A whole grain is the entire grain—which includes the bran, germ and endosperm. This means that a whole grain retains the nutrients that are present in the grain. A refined grain is one in which the bran and germ have been removed. Often, certain nutrients, like B-vitamins and iron that are lost during that refining process, are added back in.

Refined grains tend to be less filling and generally cause a higher spike in blood sugar. Choose whole grains whenever possible and skip the processed and refined grains like white flour and white rice.

15 grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to about ⅓ - ½ cup of cooked grain, depending on the grain. The diabetic exchange list provides more a more detailed breakdown.


Often mistakenly labeled as vegetables, the nutritional profile of beans, peas, and lentils are more similar to grains. They provide a lot of fiber, as well as iron and B-vitamins. They also provide a good amount of protein.

A few great varieties to add to your menu: chickpeas, white beans, pinto beans, black beans, green lentils, red lentils, and dried split peas.

About ½ cup cooked (or ¼ cup dry) beans, peas, or lentils provides 15 grams of carbohydrate.

Starchy Vegetables

There is a lot of of confusion around starchy vegetables, in particular. They get a bad reputation for being high in carbohydrate, but can make a delicious, nutrient-dense substitute for grains on the plate. They’re packed with vitamins and minerals and also provide a lot of fiber. Rather than have rice with your meat, how about some roasted sweet potatoes?

Just keep in mind that it’s best to stick with simple preparations that don’t use a lot of extra fat, sugar, or salt. Also, steer clear of fried varieties—breading and deep-frying negate the benefits of the veggies themselves.

Some good starchy vegetable choices include: parsnips, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash, green peas, and corn.

A 15-gram carbohydrate serving of starchy vegetables is about ½ a cup cooked for most, 1 cup for cooked pumpkin or winter squash, or ½ a medium baked potato. Check the Diabetic Exchange List for more detailed information.


Fruit is also a great source of complex carbohydrate. Most varieties are packed with fiber plus key vitamins and minerals. To keep calories in check, opt for fresh over dried. Also, go slow on fruit juice, which doesn’t have the benefit of fiber to buffer the breakdown of those carbs into sugar in the body, meaning that it’s more likely to cause a sharp blood sugar spike and then crash.

A 15-gram carbohydrate serving is equivalent to about ¾ cup of berries, a 9-inch banana, a medium apple, ¼ cup of dried fruit, of a ½-cup of fruit juice. The Diabetic Exchange list provides more detailed information.


Depending on your diet plan and health goals, you may want to account for the naturally present carbohydrate in dairy, lactose. Each serving of milk provides about 12 to 15 grams of carbohydrate.

The Diabetic Exchange system lists cheese as a meat, as it is, essentially, the protein and fat from milk, but products like milk, yogurt, and ice cream are considered carbohydrate sources. Just note that any added sweeteners will contribute additional carbohydrate.

Fat-free dairy products will break down more quickly than low-fat and full-fat varieties, as fat slows digestion, so keep that in mind when deciding what is an appropriate choice for you.

Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life and a balanced relationship with food. For those in need of some healthy-eating inspiration, Jess created five day's worth of delicious make-ahead lunches to make it even easier to eat well on a busy day. For more information on Jess, check out her website and follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebook and Pinterest.

Main Photo Credit: Zolnierek/; Second Photo Credit: O M 17/; Third Photo Credit: JUN3/; Fourth Photo Credit: Oleksandra Naumenko/