It would really be nice just to eat what I want, or even just to eat what was good for me. But when you’re using an insulin pump with carbohydrate counting, things are never that simple.

aspargus being weighed

The scale was tared for the weight of the pan; only the asparagus is weighed. This is only 6 grams of carbohydrate; asparagus is not a high-carbohydrate food.

Carbohydrate counting is a relatively complex way to handle the interplay between food and insulin. The simplest way, which is what the doctors started me on 40 years ago, was a rigid diet (the diabetic exchange diet) and an equally rigid schedule of insulin shots. It worked all right during the honeymoon phase, but few people stick to it, and by 10 years ago it wasn’t working. Even when I tried counting carbohydrates to get a more accurate food intake, the intake being dictated by my doctor, I still had problems. Sometimes I would go into shock at the most unexpected times (including while eating); at other times I would go high for no apparent reason.

It wasn’t until I got an insulin pump that I learned the most important lesson of carbohydrate counting: you adjust your insulin to what you are eating, your measured blood sugar at mealtime, and how your body reacts. Some doctors are still not comfortable with this.

The standard method of carbohydrate counting just counts the grams of carbohydrate in a meal, leaving the fat and protein to themselves except for avoiding too much fat and making sure there is enough protein. This works as long as each meal contains about the same balance of fat, carbohydrate and protein. When this balance varies, it’s better to use a complex formula that includes all three, as all eventually show up as glucose in the blood. One formula I’ve seen is grams of carbohydrate plus half the grams of protein plus one-fourth the grams of fat. I use grams of carbohydrate plus half the grams of protein, unless fat makes up more than 40% of the meal. (Not often.)

But how do you get those grams?

If you’re eating prepared food you read the nutrition label. These are actually available online for many national restaurant chains, though it means going online before you go out to eat, or order it sent. (It may also shock you at the amount of fat present.) If you are eating out other than at a national chain, you have to guess – and check your blood sugar often after eating. If you are cooking with fresh food at home, you need to weigh everything and refer to some kind of list, such as the one put out by the FDA, which has nutritional information for all kinds of foods. (The FDA list is available as an iPhone app, and there are may other food listings of this sort online.) Needless to say, this greatly slows down the process of preparing a meal, which is why I tend to rely rather heavily on frozen meals – reading the nutrition labels before I buy!

As to how to weigh food, the ideal is a gram scale, usually digital and battery-powered. Mine’s almost worn out from use, but it’s an essential part of food preparation for me.

As to getting all those weights into a meal, I use a computer program called Diet Sleuth, though it means running back and forth between the kitchen and the computer room to enter the foods I’m going to eat. Next week I’ll describe how it works.

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