When discussing diet and nutrition, the word ‘carb’ bring about a negative connotation. Many people see it as a dirty word synonymous with eating too much starchy food. People often believe cutting carbs from their diet is the first step to losing weight.
What’s the Difference Between Total Carbs and Net Carbs?
Just like calories, carbs cannot simply be labeled as “bad”. Instead we should see them like anything else we eat — something we consume in moderation. If you’re looking to reduce carbohydrate intake, whether it be for a certain diet like keto, or to lose weight, carbohydrates are measured in two ways: total carbs and net carbs. So, what’s the difference between total carbs and net carbs?
What is a Total Carb?
A carbohydrate is a macronutrient which provides energy to the body via calories. They come in simple forms like sugars. They also come in complex forms such as starches and fiber. The body will break down most sugar and starches into glucose — a simple sugar the body can use to feed the cells. A total carbohydrate, which is measured on food nutrition labels, includes all types of carbohydrates in that food or drink — which are:
What are Net Carbs?
Net carbs are calculated by subtracting fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrates. The formula is: “total carbs – fiber – half the carbs from sugar alcohols = net carbs.” But not all carbohydrates are created equal! Some fibers and sugar alcohols have less impact on blood glucose. It’s often assumed dietary fiber contains zero calories; that’s inaccurate. Dietary fiber yields roughly two kcal per gram, with soluble fiber providing a greater amount of kcal vs insoluble fiber.
What Does This Mean?
The concept of net carbs is based on the idea that different carbohydrates affect the body in different ways. Carbohydrates can be divided into two main types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, are absorbed quickly and cause blood sugars to rise after food has been consumed. The simple carbs health professionals tell you to stay away from or consume in moderation include:
- sugary drinks
- concentrated fruit juice
Complex carbohydrates, in contrast, move more slowly through the digestive system. Examples include:
- brown rice
This distinction is important to those who measure net carbs, so they only consume carbs the body can digest into glucose.
Which Should We Pay Attention To?
Net carbs doesn’t have a legal definition. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t use the term, nor does the American Diabetes Association. Because the contribution of fiber and sugar alcohols to total carbohydrates depends on the types present, the net carb equation is not entirely accurate.
In fact, if you’re dosing insulin as a diabetic, the dose is dependent on total carbohydrates, not net carbs. However, this net carb tactic does indirectly promote fiber as, according to the USDA, Americans average 15g per day where the recommendation is 25-30g per day.
Who Uses Net Carbs?
It’s paradoxical that many of us want to be on a low carb diet, yet we also naturally crave carbohydrates. The net carb equation is a way of marketing and justifying the consumption of carbohydrates while seemingly being on a low carb diet.
People who are on ketogenic diets will calculate their net carbs. The intention behind the diet is to eat very low carbs and higher amounts of fats. This puts your body into a state called ketosis, which makes your body efficient at burning fat. On a ketogenic diet people will eat food like:
- high fat vegetables
Most ketogenic diets recommend around 15-30g of net carbohydrates a day.
Some diabetics will argue that keeping track of net carbs can help them better determine their insulin dosage decisions. They make the case that calculating net carbs helps fine-tune fiber and sugar intake. However, it’s something a doctor should determine.
How Do Health Professionals View It?
To be clear, calories are not bad, but excessive calories can be a sign of a poor diet. In the same way, carbohydrates are not bad, but excessive carbohydrates can be detrimental to health. Caloric control, balanced macronutrients, variety of whole foods, adequate water intake, and exercise will provide a desirable body composition and overall wellness.
For this reason, many health professionals see ‘net carbs’ as a diet industry invention. It may be labeled on sweet foods as a way to market ‘treats’ as less unhealthy. However, excessive macro counting can make it difficult to encourage yourself to maintain a healthy relationship with food. Not mention it can discourage you from viewing carbohydrates as something ‘bad’ that needs to be cut out, rather than something that can supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle. Unless you have a health condition that requires the careful monitoring of your carb intake, net carbs is a term you should approach with care in the food industry.
About the Writer/Doctor: Alex Concepcion is a Board Certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. He was born in Chicago Illinois, but has lived in Las Vegas for 26 years and considers himself a local. After graduating from UNLV in 2012, Alex started his company, Rite Life, where he focuses on weight management, weight-related chronic Illness, and sports nutrition. He not only preaches the lifestyle, he lives it. Alex is a competitive bodybuilder; a 2-time nationally qualified competitor, Top 5 USA National Bodybuilding competitor, and a Natural Pro Bodybuilder for the PNBA.