A closer look at net carbs vs. total carbs

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In the world of nutrition and health, carbohydrates often find themselves at the center of many debates, particularly when it comes to understanding the distinction between net carbs vs. total carbs. This distinction is not just a matter of scientific jargon; it has practical implications for anyone looking to manage their diet, whether for weight loss, blood sugar control or overall health optimization.

A close up of a food label highlighting the difference between net carbs and total carbs.
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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Please see the disclaimer below for more information.

While it might seem like a simple calculation, it can sometimes be confusing. Rest assured that you will be a pro by the time you are done reading this.

Whether you are looking at the label for a sweetener or wondering how an avocado will fit into your macros, being able to understand carbohydrates is key. There is a lot of misinformation, however, and marketing agencies sometimes use that to their advantage.

In particular, understanding the difference between net carbs vs. total carbs is critical for individuals following a low-carb diet, such as the keto diet. Total carbohydrates include all the different types of carbohydrates in a food. This measurement is what is typically listed on nutrition labels and is used by regulatory bodies for nutritional recommendations.

A variety of foods including bread, corn, and pasta, highlighting the difference between net carbs and total carbs.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Net carbs, on the other hand, are calculated by subtracting dietary fiber and sometimes sugar alcohols from total carbs. The rationale behind this subtraction is that dietary fiber and sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body and, therefore, have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels. As a result, those monitoring their carb intake for blood sugar control or weight loss may choose to focus on net carbs to guide their food choices. Bear in mind that sugar alcohols have no relation to alcoholic beverages as they do not contain ethanol.

“I calculate total carbs because it’s a more true representation of the calories you are eating. It’s very easy to underestimate the amount of calories consumed when calorie counting for things like macros or dieting if you count net carbs.”

— Samantha Erb, Everyday Family Cooking

The distinction between the two types of carb measurements has led to discussions about their respective effects on metabolism and health. Some argue that net carbs provide a more accurate representation of a carbohydrate’s impact on the body. Nevertheless, it is essential to consider individual dietary needs.

Understanding carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are essential for energy and play a pivotal role in nutrition. They are macronutrients found in a wide variety of foods and beverages. Most carbs are broken down into glucose, which is the primary source of energy for the body’s cells.

Role in nutrition

According to StatPearls Journal, carbohydrates perform several roles in human nutrition, including providing energy for daily activities and proper organ function. They are also foundational in the diet for supporting digestive health through dietary fiber and helping to control blood sugar.

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Net carbs explained

To calculate your net carbs, subtract the amount of dietary fiber and sometimes sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrates. StatsPearls Journal also states that fiber is indigestible and does not raise blood sugar, which is why it’s removed from the total carb count. The formula is as follows:

Net Carbs = Total Carbohydrates – Dietary Fiber – Sugar Alcohols (if applicable)

For instance, if a food has 30 grams of total carbohydrates, including 5 grams of fiber and 10 grams of sugar alcohol, the net carbs would be 15 grams. Some people subtract off only half of the sugar alcohol, so it is best to see what works for your body.

Impact on blood sugar

Net carbs are considered carbohydrates that affect blood sugar levels because they exclude fiber and some sugar alcohols, which generally have a minimal impact. Managing the intake of net carbs is essential for individuals with diabetes or those on a keto diet, where maintaining a state of ketosis requires strict control of carbohydrate consumption.

Total carbs overview

Total carbohydrates are the sum of all types of carbohydrates found in food, encompassing sugars, starches, fiber and sugar alcohols. They are a primary energy source for the body and play a crucial role in many functions.

Vegetables and fruits on a wooden table.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Components of total carbohydrates:

  • Sugars: Simple carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed by the body.
  • Starches: Complex carbohydrates that are broken down into sugars over time.
  • Fiber: A type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest.
  • Sugar alcohols: A type of carbohydrate that the body partially absorbs and metabolizes more slowly than simple sugars. As per accredited dietitian Elise Mandl, they have a lesser impact on blood sugar levels compared to regular sugar.

How manufacturers mislead with net carbs

Manufacturers may use the concept of net carbs to create a misleading health halo around their products. Food packaging might highlight net carbs while obscuring the total carb content, which could misguide uninformed consumers.

Who should look at net carbs vs. total carbs

Typically, individuals monitoring carbohydrate intake focus on either total carbs or net carbs, depending on their dietary goals and health needs. Here’s a breakdown of who might consider each:

People with diabetes: They often count total carbohydrates to maintain blood glucose levels within a target range. Precision is key, so total carbs give them a complete picture of what they’re consuming. However, each diabetic is unique and should follow their doctor’s instructions for carb counting.

Those following the ketogenic diet: These dieters aim for a state of ketosis, which requires limiting carb intake. Net carbs are useful here because they subtract fibers and sugar alcohols, which have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.

Weight loss seekers: Some people find that focusing on net carbs, rather than total carbs, can assist with weight management, according to Registered Dietitian Franziska Spritzler. It allows you to include fiber-rich foods, which can be satisfying without significantly affecting blood sugar.

People should consult with healthcare professionals before deciding whether to use net carbs vs. total carbs, as individual health conditions and dietary requirements may necessitate one approach over the other. Remember, each person’s needs are unique, and dietary choices should be made in consultation with a dietitian or a healthcare provider.

Trina Krug, MS, CDSP is a holistic nutritionist, recipe creator and advocate for human health. Her passion for low carb lifestyles, gluten free eating and real nutrition education has led to the creation of Trina Krug. She spends her time creating recipes, hanging out with her family on her farm and actively working on her Doctor of Science in Integrative Health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The contents of this article, made available via Food Drink Life, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. The content presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or dietary changes. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk.

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