Carbs vs Net Carbs…What’s the Difference?

Net Carbs vs Total Carbs

Carbs vs Net Carbs…What’s the Difference?

Video | Net Carbs Meaning | Calculating Net Carbs | Which to Count: Total Carbs vs. Net Carbs

To follow a low-carb or keto diet, you need to track how many grams of carbohydrates you are eating each day. 

However, there are two camps when it comes to carb counting. Those who count total carbs and those who count net carbs. So, what’s the difference, and which way is the right way? We’ll tackle those questions in this blog post.

Carbs vs. Net Carbs – At-A-Glance


  • Net Carbs are the carbohydrates in a food that your body can digest. They can impact your blood sugar and insulin levels.  
  • Fiber, sugar alcohols, and allulose can all be subtracted from a food’s total carb count to determine the food’s net carb count.
  • Counting total carbs or net carbs is up to you. However, I recommend counting total carbs for four reasons:
    • It’s easier.
    • Some sugar alcohols have a glycemic index, meaning they can raise your blood sugar level.
    • Net carbs can be used as a marketing tool to make sweet treats look diet-friendly.
    • Products sweetened with sugar alcohols and allulose are often calorie-dense and keep your sweet tooth alive, making it hard to make weight loss progress.

Carbs vs Net Carbs [What’s the Difference] [Video]

What are Net Carbs?

Net carbs are sometimes called impact carbs because they are the carbohydrates that your body can digest, and therefore, they are the ones that can impact your blood sugar and insulin levels. When we define net carbs in that way, it implies that some carbs resist digestion, and that is true. For instance, fiber along with certain sugar alcohols and allulose are not easily or entirely digested by your body, so their impact on your blood sugar is not as significant. 

That sounds like a good deal! In essence, you can eat more carbs without the metabolic consequences that encourage weight gain. But like many things that sound really good, there is more to the story. And, here’s where it gets tricky at best and downright deceptive at worst.

How to Calculate Net Carbs

Calculating Net Carbs

There is a difference in how net carbs are tallied for different foods.

Calculating Net Carbs of Whole Foods

If carbohydrates come solely from whole foods like vegetables and fruits, net carbs are fine to count, and the equation is simple.

In the case of whole foods, net carbs are calculated by subtracting the grams of fiber from the total carb count. For example, a cup of strawberries has 11.7 total grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fiber. If you eat the whole cup, you will have consumed 8.7 net carbs. So, whole foods come down to what you prefer to keep track of, total or net carbs.

Calculating Net Carbs of Packaged Foods

However, if you include packaged or processed foods in your low-carb diet, additional subtractions apply: sugar alcohols and allulose [along with fiber]. The challenge is that this extra math opens the door to deception, preventing you from getting the weight loss benefits of a low carb or keto diet.

Sugar alcohols and allulose can be added to foods to make them sweeter and improve their crave factor and texture. They are metabolized differently than other food nutrients. Therefore, they have less impact on your blood sugar than the sugar they are replacing. For the most part, the carbs they contain can be subtracted from the total carb count. Again, that sounds like a great deal! You get to eat your sweet treats without the high-carb consequences that cause you to gain weight. But does it seem too good to be true? Let’s look at an example.

Duncan Hines sells a brownie mix that boldly displays “Keto-Friendly” and “3g Net Carbs” on the label. That sounds great! However, when we look at the nutrition facts, we see that each brownie contains 17 total carbs. 

How did they accomplish this 14 carb drop?

If we look at the fine print, we see that there are 4 grams of fiber, and they added 5 grams of sugar alcohol and 5 grams of allulose. Despite having no added sugar, this is a very sweet dessert packed with 200 calories. That sweetness will keep your sweet tooth alive, making it harder to stick with your diet when faced with future temptations, and the calories could easily derail your weight loss.

Which is Right?

So, which way is the right way to count carbs? Neither is wrong, but in my opinion, counting total carbs has the edge over counting net carbs for four reasons.

4 Reasons to Count Total Carbs – Not Net Carbs

1. It’s easier.

When you count total carbs, there is nothing to calculate. Keep things simple, and you are more likely to follow through with your plan and have long-term success.

Total carbs is easier

2. Not all sugar alcohols are zero-impact carbs.

Some can be absorbed through the small intestine and cause a rise in blood sugar. For example, maltitol, a popular sweetener in keto-friendly snacks, has a glycemic index of 35. What that means to you is that it is getting into your bloodstream and impacting your blood sugar level.

Sugar alcohols are not created equal

3. Marketing and mirrors.

Like the brownie mix example above, the front of many keto-friendly packages states their net carb count, not their total carbs. This smaller number is appealing to carb-conscious dieters. To discover the math required to reduce the total carbs to net carbs, you need to read the fine print on the side or back of the box.

Marketing tricks with carb count

4. The addictive nature of sweets.

Whole foods do not contain significant amounts of sugar alcohols and allulose. Those items are added to processed foods to increase the crave factor. This can sabotage your weight loss in two ways. These foods are calorie-dense, and they keep you hooked on sugar. Those two things can easily derail your weight loss progress. 

The Addictive Nature of Sweets

Takeaway

Fortunately, there is no need for processed foods when you follow a well-formulated low carb or keto diet. You get to enjoy savory meals that keep hunger and cravings away naturally. If you want to put this to the test, I invite you to learn about my 21-day challenges. There is a challenge for those interested in going keto and another for those who simply want to lower their carb intake.

About the Author

Becky Gillaspy, DC, is the author of The Intermittent Fasting Guide and Cookbook. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.

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