Yes, mac and cheese is high in carbs. A typical serving of homemade mac and cheese contains around 37-55 grams of carbs, depending on the recipe. Store-bought mac and cheese tends to be slightly lower in carbs with around 31-45 grams per serving. The high carb count is mainly due to the pasta and added thickeners used to make the cheese sauce.
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are one of the three main macronutrients found in foods, along with protein and fat. Carbs are the main source of energy for the body and brain.
There are three main types of carbs:
- Sugars: Found naturally in foods like fruits and milk. Also added to foods as table sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
- Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules found in starchy foods like grains, legumes, and potatoes.
- Fiber: Indigestible carbs that promote gut health and regulate digestion.
When digesting carbs, the body breaks them down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream and raises blood sugar levels. The glycemic index measures how much and how quickly a carb-containing food raises blood sugar. High glycemic foods cause rapid spikes, while low glycemic foods have a more gradual effect.
Carb Count in Mac and Cheese
The high carb content in mac and cheese comes primarily from two ingredients – pasta and added thickeners:
Pasta is made from wheat flour, which is almost entirely starch. An average serving of elbow macaroni (2 oz dry) contains around 37 grams of digestible carbs.
To make the creamy, cheese sauce in mac and cheese, thickeners like flour or cornstarch are typically added. One tablespoon of all-purpose flour adds around 10 grams of carbs while cornstarch adds around 8 grams.
Other potential sources of carbs in homemade mac and cheese include:
- Milk: 12 grams carbs per 1 cup
- Cheese: Around 1 gram net carbs per ounce
- Breadcrumbs or panko topping: Around 15 grams carbs per 1⁄4 cup
So in a typical homemade recipe, the total carb count per serving lands around 37-55 grams.
Store-bought mac and cheese tends to be a bit lower in carbs, with a serving ranging from 31-45 grams. Manufacturers use more cheese and less pasta and thickeners to cut costs.
Mac and Cheese Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) of mac and cheese can vary based on the type of pasta used:
- Elbow macaroni: GI around 50
- Whole wheat or lentil pasta: GI around 40
- Zucchini noodles: GI around 15
Substituting lower GI alternatives for all or part of the wheat pasta can result in a more gradual blood sugar response.
Cheese helps lower the GI somewhat compared to plain pasta, due to its low carb content. Adding protein and fats found in meats, vegetables, or beans also slows digestion and absorption.
Overall though, mac and cheese is considered a high glycemic index food due to its refined carb content.
Mac and Cheese Carbs vs Other Foods
Compared to other common foods and dishes, a serving of mac and cheese is very high in carbs:
|Total Carbs (grams)
|1 cup mac and cheese
|1 cup cooked penne pasta
|1 cup brown rice
|1 medium banana
|1 slice white bread
Mac and cheese has a similar carb count to plain pasta or rice. It’s significantly higher in carbs compared to lower carb alternatives like bread or fruit.
Ways to Reduce Carbs in Mac and Cheese
There are a few simple ways to cut down the carbs in mac and cheese:
Use Lower Carb Noodles
Swap all or part of wheat noodles for lower carb versions:
- Zucchini noodles
- Spaghetti squash
- Cauliflower rice
- Shirataki noodles
- Edamame or chickpea pasta
This will instantly drop the carb count, sometimes dramatically.
Bulk Up On Vegetables
Add extra low carb veggies like broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, or roasted peppers. This increases nutrients while lowering the ratio of pasta to cheese sauce.
Use Less Pasta
Use around half the amount of pasta called for in a recipe. Focus on increasing protein and fiber from other ingredients to help fill you up.
Use less flour or cornstarch when making the cheese sauce, and increase cheese and milk instead for a richer flavor.
Choose Lower Carb Cheese
Opt for full-fat cheeses like cheddar, parmesan, swiss, and mozzarella. Limit low fat cheeses as they often have more carbs.
Skip the Breadcrumb Topping
Avoid the extra carbs from breadcrumb or panko toppings. Try crushed pork rinds or almonds instead.
Health Effects of High Carb Intake
Consuming too many refined carbs like pasta, bread, crackers, and cereals can have negative health impacts for some people. Potential issues include:
- Blood sugar and insulin spikes after meals
- Increased triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol
- Fat gain around the abdomen
- Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease
- Energy crashes and sugar cravings between meals
The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to under 10% of total daily calories. Pasta and rice count as added sugars due to their refined nature.
People with diabetes also need to monitor their carb intake closely to control blood sugar. Counting carbs and limiting portion sizes of high carb foods is key.
Who Needs to Limit Carbs
While refined carbs can negatively impact anyone’s health, certain groups may benefit the most from reducing carb-heavy foods like mac and cheese:
People With Diabetes
Keeping total carb counts and portions controlled is crucial for managing blood sugar levels.
Those With Prediabetes
Lowering refined carb intake can help reverse insulin resistance and prevent type 2 diabetes.
People Seeking Weight Loss
Cutting back on carbs and increasing protein and fat intake can help boost metabolism and reduce hunger.
Individuals With Metabolic Syndrome
Reducing refined carbs and added sugars improves risk factors like high blood pressure and triglycerides.
Anyone on a Low Carb or Keto Diet
Restricting total daily carbs to under 50 or even 20 grams requires eliminating carb-heavy foods.
Healthy Low Carb Mac and Cheese Alternatives
You don’t have to give up creamy, cheesy comfort food just because you’re limiting carbs. Try these delicious lower carb mac and cheese ideas:
Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
In place of wheat noodles, use riced cauliflower. This vegetable has just 5 grams of carbs per cup.
Zucchini Noodle Bake
For an easy baked dish, simply toss zucchini noodles with cheese sauce and bake until bubbly.
Mac and Cheese Stuffed Peppers
Fill red or green bell peppers with a cheesy cauliflower rice mixture for a flavorful, low carb meal.
Lasagna Zucchini Boats
Use large zucchini instead of lasagna noodles, layering with meat sauce and ricotta cheese.
Broccoli Mac and Cheese Casserole
Combine broccoli, chicken, and cheese sauce, topped with pork rind crumbs for crunch.
Should Diabetics Avoid Mac and Cheese?
People with diabetes don’t necessarily have to avoid mac and cheese entirely. However, portion size and frequency of consumption are key factors.
Here are some tips for diabetics to incorporate mac and cheese healthfully:
– Choose whole grain or vegetable-based pasta varieties to help control blood sugar spikes.
– Stick to a serving size of 1/2 – 3/4 cup mac and cheese per meal.
– Avoid pairing mac and cheese with other high carb foods like bread, rice, or desserts.
– Add protein foods like chicken, shrimp, or beans to help slow digestion.
– Check blood sugar levels 1-2 hours after eating to see your individual response.
– Limit higher carb comfort foods like mac and cheese to once a week or for special occasions.
– Use low fat, reduced sodium cheese to limit saturated fat intake.
With careful carb counting and portion control, people with diabetes can work higher carb favorites like macaroni and cheese into their meal plan on occasion. Moderation and balance are key.
Mac and cheese is high in refined carbohydrates, primarily from noodles and thickeners used to create the cheesy sauce. A typical one cup serving provides around 45 grams of carbs. The large portion of digestible starches makes mac and cheese a high glycemic index food as well.
Limiting intake of pasta, flour, sugar and other refined carbs can provide health benefits for those with diabetes, prediabetes, metabolic syndrome and anyone seeking to lose weight or improve cardiovascular health.
Luckily, there are many great ways to lighten up mac and cheese by using lower carb vegetables “noodles”, bulking up on veggies, and skipping breadcrumb toppings. With some simple substitutions, you can still enjoy the comfort of ooey, gooey mac and cheese even when limiting your carb intake.