It’s easy for your health-care providers to say that you should count the grams of carbohydrate you eat to figure out your rapid-acting insulin doses. But as you well know, carb counting is easier said than done with the myriad foods and meals you eat.

Figuring the carbohydrate counts of restaurant foods can be particularly baffling.

In this post, I offer practical advice to more precisely pinpoint the carbohydrate counts of restaurant foods and meals.

Diabetes-friendly salad from fast food restaurant

For starters, when at all possible use the carbohydrate counts provided by the restaurants. They’re your most accurate source of info.

There’s more nutrition information, including carbohydrate counts, for restaurant foods available today than ever before. Most large national and regional restaurant chains (particularly walk up and order type restaurants) reveal their nutrition information on their websites, making carb counting a lot easier.

You’ll also typically find this info integrated into large food databases in books, on websites, or in apps, where the data is available at your fingertips.

As of May 5, 2017, chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets and offering a substantially similar menu in all branches must provide specific nutrition information.

The focus is squarely on calories, but in addition, a statement must be posted on menus or menu boards stating that additional nutrition information (including carbohydrate counts) for standard menu items is available on request. Again, this will help quite significantly with carb counting. You can learn more about this regulation on FDA’s website.

While nutritional info is quite readily available for large national chains, it remains a challenge to get exact carbohydrate counts for foods served in many independent single-location restaurants.

These range from your local pizza joint to restaurants that serve one of many or a fusion of ethnic cuisines to fine dining establishments.

How to estimate carbohydrate counts

1. Use measuring equipment on occasion at home to keep your restaurant portion control tools (your eyes and hands) honest. Yes, this can be boring and arduous, but for weight control and accurate carb counting it works and is an excellent reality check. Use your honest eyes and hands as you estimate the serving sizes and carb counts of restaurant foods.

2. Use these “handy” hand guides. You’ve always got them by your side to help you with carb counting wherever you are.

  • Tip of the thumb (to the first knuckle) — 1 teaspoon
  • Whole thumb — 1 tablespoon
  • Palm of your hand — 3 ounces (a portion of cooked meat/protein).
  • Loose fist or open handful — 1 cup
  • Tight fist — 1/2 cup

(Note: These guidelines hold true for most women’s hands, but some men’s hands are much larger.)

3. If there’s no nutrition information for restaurants you frequent often, gather information that is available from restaurants that have a similar menu. Pizza from your local pizza shop is a good example. Rely on carbohydrate counts from national chain pizza restaurants. Scope out the piece or pieces that look most equal to the carb count provided by the chain restaurant and interpolate to derive your carb count.

4. Check out the Nutrition Facts labels of similar restaurant foods in the frozen or packaged convenience food area of your supermarket. Note the serving size and portion.

5. If you regularly eat particular ethnic foods and you can’t find carb counts, look for the nutrition info on these foods in the supermarket (if they’re sold), or look for recipes for similar dishes in magazines, recipe books, or online. View a couple of recipes for the dish. Calculate an average. (Note: there’s an increasing array of chain ethnic restaurants. They’ll have to provide nutritional info. Take a look at their nutritional info for insight).

6. When you eat Asian cuisine, from Chinese to Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese, consider increasing your total carb count by five to ten grams (do base this on your experience as well). Many of the sauces, particularly the thicker ones, may contain sugar, cornstarch, and/or flour. In addition, the meats may have been marinated in ingredients like sugar or other sweeteners.

7. Practice defensive carb counting. Recognize that even the most accurate nutrition information from very large chains is only based on a few sample meals prepared according to corporate specifications, or estimated based on the ingredients. On any given day, the portions of foods and ingredients served may be slightly more or less than what’s noted in their nutrition information. That’s true even for fast-food hamburgers. Some days, there’s more or less ketchup, pickles, and/or special sauce.

The time and effort you put into precisely pinpointing the carbohydrate counts of your restaurant foods will serve you well over time.

Use the data to build your personal restaurant foods database. Record the carbohydrate counts of foods you eat frequently and how well your bolus dosing worked to manage your glucose.

Keep this with you in the form and format that’s easiest for you to access when and where you need it. You likely frequent the same restaurants and order similar menu items often.

Good luck with your efforts towards a healthier weight and healthier you in 2017!

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