Tracking Carbs Instead of Counting Calories

I have found that people wanting to lose weight simply don’t want to weigh or measure food or count calories – and who can blame them! I design Meal Plans for my clients so they don’t need to. As I will explain in this article, with a Standard Meal Plan (based on a traditional macronutrient distribution), carbohydrate, protein and fat are all laid out, based on the food exchanges. With a Low Carb High Healthy Fat Meal Plan or a Hybrid Meal Plan, carbohydrate percent, protein- and fat percent are also laid out, but for those seeking to lower insulin resistance or lose weight or both, tracking carb intake is important.  In this article, I’ll explain tracking carbs.

Firstly, what is a Meal Plan?

What is a Meal Plan?

A Meal Plan isn’t a “menu” that tells you what foods you have to eat, but indicates how many servings of each category of food you should aim to eat at each meal. I explain more about what a food category is, below.

The first step in designing a person’s Meal Plan after I’ve done their assessment, is to determine their overall caloric needs based on age, gender, activity level, desired weight loss (or gain), as well as any special considerations such as growth, weight loss, pregnancy or lactation, etc.

More about calories in the next article, but suffice to say here, calories are generally not the focus in Low Carb High Healthy Fat eating, carbs are.

The next step is to set the macronutrient distribution (% of calories from carbohydrate, protein and fat) of the Meal Plan according to what would best suit the person’s clinical needs, goals and lifestyle. This is something I discuss with people during the assessment, and which is ultimately up to them.  The Standard macronutrient distribution is ~45-65% carbohydrate, ~15-20% protein and ~30% fat. Generally speaking, unless there is a compelling clinical reason for using a Standard Meal Plan, I encourage people to consider the benefits of a low carb high healthy fat eating.

The Low Carb High Healthy Fat macronutrient distribution is ~5-10% carbohydrate, ~20% protein and ~65-70% healthy fat, with the Hybrid macronutrient distribution falling somewhere in between.

In the final step, I design a person’s Meal Plan based on the foods that they’ve told me they like, avoiding those they don’t, and factoring in the time of day they either need to (for scheduling reasons) or prefer to eat. Then we meet for me to go over their Meal Plan with them, and for me to teach them how to easily and accurately estimate their portion sizes, using visual measures. More on visual measures, below.

The only thing left for them to decide is what they want to eat!

Food Categories – Standard Meal Plan

In a Standard Meal Plan or Hybrid, categories include Starchy Vegetables and Grains, Fruit, Non-Starchy vegetables, Meat, Poultry, Meat and Egg or Cheese, and Legumes (pulses). These categories are based on how many grams of carbs are contained in the foods in make up that category.

Take, for example, the Starchy Vegetable and Grain Category.  This group includes all the standard “carbs” such as bread, pasta, rice and cereals as well as “starchy vegetables” such as peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes / yams and winter squash (such as acorn or butternut squash). All foods in this category have 15 gm of carbs per serving (where a serving is 1/2 cup or the equivalent of 1 slice of bread).

So, 1 slice of bread has 15 gms of carb, 1/2 cup of peas has 15 gms of carb, 1/2 cup of rice has 15 gms of carb, 1/2 cup of oatmeal has 15 gms of carb, and 1/2 a hamburger bun has 15 gms of carb.

If a person’s Meal Plan indicates that they can have 2 servings from the Starchy Vegetable and Grain category, that could be 2 pieces of toast, or 1 cup of oatmeal, or 1 cup rice, etc. Their Meal Plan doesn’t tell them what food they have to eat, just how much from each category.

Here is an example of what a Standard Meal Plan looks like;



As you can see, all the calculations have been done.

In this example, this Meal Plan was for an 85 year old man who wanted to gain weight and was based on 45% of his calories coming from carbs, 21% from fat and 34% from fat.

Estimating Portion Sizes

When I’ve taught someone to accurately estimate their serving sizes using visual measures, the amount of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat and calories) they will take in following their Meal Plan will be what was planned.

What are Visual Measures?

Visual measures are easy and accurate means to estimate serving sizes. For in-person clients, this might be based on the size of their hand or fingers, such as (depending on the size of a person’s hand) a 1/2 a cup (dry measure) may be the amount of something round (like frozen peas) that could be contained in their scooped hand, without rolling out. An ounce (by weight) might be the size of two specific fingers on their hand, or a Tbsp may be the amount of the last digit on their thumb. For Distance Consultation clients, the standard used in teaching visual measures are standard size items, such as the size of a golf ball or four dice stacked up.

Tracking Carbohydrates

Where tracking carbohydrates comes into play is with Low Carb High Healthy Fat Meal Plan or a Hybrid Meal Plan – especially when lowering insulin levels or losing weight is desired. Keeping track of carbohydrates on these kind of Meal Plans is nothing like needing to count calories! It is very easy.

On a Low Carb High Healthy Fat Meal Plans, the macronutrient distribution for carbs is set quite tightly. For men, total carbs would be somewhere between 80-100 grams and for women, it may be set as low as 35 gms carb or as high as 50 gms. It depends on their needs. Naturally, Hybrid Meal Plans will have higher total daily carbs.

Since there are no Starchy Vegetables and Grains and Milk on these Meal Plans (cheese is used, just not milk due to the carb content), the Food Categories on a Low Carb Meal Plan or Hybrid are different than on a Standard (or traditional) Meal Plan).

Food Categories in a Low Carb Meal Plan include Non-Starchy Vegetables, which exclude “Starchy Vegetables” such as peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes / yams and winter squash – with some intake guidelines around root vegetables such as carrots, beets and parsnips. The Fruit category here is specified more narrowly than in a Standard Meal Plan – generally focused on berries and low sugar citrus such as lime and lemon, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers (yes, both are technically ‘fruit’).

Meat, Poultry, Meat and Egg or Cheese is pretty much the same as with a Standard Meal Plan, with an ounce of any of these protein foods being 1 serving and individuals being able to have several servings at each meal (based on their caloric needs, factoring in any weight loss). The fat contained in the Meat, Poultry, Meat and Egg or Cheese is already calculated when the Meal Plan is made, so “Fat” here means added fat. The Fat category includes everything from olive oil, avocado (both the fruit and the oil), coconut oil, butter, olives and nuts and seeds.

Foods in the Meat, Poultry, Meat and Egg or Cheese category have little or no carbs in them and Non-Starchy Vegetables are generally around 5 gm of carb per cup and berries, which are in the Fruit category are roughly 15 gm of carb for 1/2 a cup. A few berries on a salad isn’t usually a problem, but more than that can easily put us over our maximum amount of carbs for the day, which I call the “carb ceiling”.

Where it becomes particularly important to track carbohydrates when one is seeking weight loss is with foods such as nuts and seeds.  It is very easy to eat a handful of nuts and end up exceeding one’s daily maximum number of carbs.

[an article written a month earlier will provide detailed information regarding the carbohydrate content of nuts:]

Carb Creep

“Carb-creep” is when we eat more carbs than we think we are, which results in weight loss slowing, or even stopping. When one reaches a plateau  where they haven’t lost any weight for longer than a week or two, then tracking carbs to see if there is carb creep is advised.

A man’s carb limit may be set to 80-100 gms per day and a woman’s may be as low as 35 gms or as high as 50 gms.  That is not a lot and it is easy to inadvertently exceed this amount of carbs in the course of a day. A few splashes of milk in several cups of coffee, a handful of peanuts walking by the bowl near the photocopier and an ounce or two of 72% dark chocolate (for heart health, of course!) can quickly put us over our carb ceiling. This is where it’s important to evaluate food choices that may be putting your over your carb ceiling.

Want to know more about having a Meal Plan designed for you?

Please send me a note using the “Contact Us” form above and I will reply to you, usually by the next business day.

To our good health!


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