Should I Count Net Carbs or Total Carbs on My Low-Carb Diet?

count net carbs or total carbs

Should I Count Net Carbs or Total Carbs on My Low-Carb Diet?

Counting macros is an important skill to learn when following a low-carb diet.

As low-carb diets continue to grow in popularity, you may have seen the term, “net carbs” thrown around.

What does this term mean, and what counts when you follow a low-carb diet? Total carbs or net carbs?

In this post, I’ll explain what net carbs are, how they are calculated,  and share why choosing to count net carbs could make it harder for you to succeed on your low-carb diet.

Counting Net Carbs? It Could Be Sabotaging Your Low-Carb Diet…Here’s Why [Video]

If you follow a low-carb or keto diet, you need to keep track of how many carbs you’re eating. But, should you count net carbs or total carbs?

In this video, you’ll learn:

  • What net carbs are
  • How they are calculated
  • Why counting net carbs could make it harder for you to succeed on your low-carb diet

Counting Carbs Should be Straight Forward

If you are following a low-carb diet, you need to keep track of how many carbs you are eating each day.

You have to do this, so you can be sure to stay in the low-carb range. 

Depending on your metabolism, the low-carb range is somewhere between 50 and 125 carbs a day.

count net carbs - low carb

Luckily, the Internet, food labels, and phone apps have made counting carbs a fairly easy task.

However, there is this idea of net carbs that gets bandied about that adds a level of confusion.

There are Two Types of Carb Counters

The idea of net carbs has caused so much confusion that carbohydrate counters are now split into two camps…

Those that count total carbs …and… those that count net carbs.

What Exactly are Net Carbs?

What are net carbs and how are they calculated?

Well, net carbs are sometimes called impact carbs because they are the carbohydrates that your body can digest.

count net carbs - Net Carbs Description wording

Therefore they are the ones that can impact your blood glucose and insulin levels.

So, 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 are not easily or completely digested by your body, so their impact on your blood glucose is not as significant.  

How To Count Net Carbs in Whole Foods

Now, calculating the net carbs in whole food, like an avocado, is easy.

You simply subtract the number of fiber grams from the total carbohydrates.

For example:

A regular size avocado weighs about 200g and has around 17 grams of carbs. But, 13 of these carbs are fiber.

count net carbs - avocado

If you subtract 13 (total amount of fiber) from 17 (total amount of carbs) you get four.

That means that there are only four net carbs in the avocado.

How to Count Net Carbs in Processed Foods

Calculating the net carbs in processed or packaged food is a little more complicated. 

The reason being that companies can also subtract sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols are used as sugar substitutes for sweetness.

You can usually tell if they are in a food, by the ‘ol’ at the end of their name.

count net carbs - maltitol, erythritol, sorbitol, or xylitol

If you read an ingredient list, and it contains something like maltitol, erythritol, sorbitol, or xylitol, then it contains sugar alcohol.  

So, to calculate the net carbs in processed food, you need to find the total carbs and then subtract the fiber grams and sugar alcohols.

count net carbs -top graphic

Why I Don’t Like Counting Net Carbs

Here is where the problems with counting net carbs start for me…

In my coaching program, I encourage members to count total carbs for three main reasons:

  1. It’s Easier
  2. Not All Fibers and Sugar Alcohols are Created Equal
  3. Food Labels Can be Deceiving*

(*If you fall for a sneak food company’s sales tactics, it can become a hidden reason why your low-carb diet isn’t working.)

Let’s go through each of these reasons more in-depth.

Counting Net Carbs Makes Things More Complicated

First of all, why complicate things.

If you count total carbs, the only thing you need to do is find out how many carbs a food has and you are good to go.

count net carbs - thumbs up

If you elect to count net carbs, you have to know the total carb count and the fiber content and possibly the sugar alcohol content of the food, before you can even make the calculation.

count net carbs - confused

In my opinion, counting net carbs causes unnecessary extra steps.

Keep things simple and you are more likely to follow through with your plan and have long-term success.

Not All Sugar Alcohols and Fibers are Created Equally

Second, not all sugar alcohols and fibers are equal.

In fact, some can be absorbed through the small intestine, and cause a rise in blood glucose and insulin.

Many foods that are marketed as sugar-free or low-carb contain maltitol.

According to Healthline, maltitol has a glycemic index of 35 and an insulin index of 27.

count net carbs - blood

What that means to you is that it is getting into your bloodstream and causing a rise in your blood glucose.

That is exactly what these net or impact carbs are NOT supposed to do.

If you are trying to cut carbs by switching to sugar-free products, you need to read labels very carefully.

This sugar-free candy has maltitol listed three times on the ingredient list.

count net carbs - sugar free candy

This is not a good low-carb snack, even though the net carbs work out to just three grams per serving.

Similarly, many packaged foods try to boost the fiber content of their product by fortifying the food with fiber.

However, processed fiber is not the same as the natural fiber we get from whole foods.

Whole foods have the fiber locked inside their structures, so it resists digestion.

We cannot say the same for processed fiber.

Watch Out For IMOs on the Ingredient List

One prominent example is IMO, which stands for Isomalto-oligosaccharides.

It is a form of fiber that is often used as an additive.

IMOs do occur naturally, but they can also be manufactured.

Manufactured IMO is a cheap and easy way for food manufacturers to add fiber, and therefore lower the net carb count.

Unfortunately, this processed fiber has been shown to be absorbed by the small intestine.

count net carbs - IMOs absorbed

So, the net carbs reported on the label might be less than the actual carbs your body is digesting and metabolizing.

Buyer Beware – Net Carb Claims by Food Marketers

This fact leads to the final reason that I recommend counting total carbs, and not net carbs.

That reason is “truth in marketing”.

If it isn’t already, net carbs will soon be a marketing strategy used by food manufacturers.

One unfortunate example I found was this product.

count net carbs - extend bar 1

The unfortunate part is that I found it in the diabetes care section of my local pharmacy.

On the front of the package, it states that there is only one net carb per serving.

…But if you flip the box over, you see that the company had to do some pretty tricky math to get the total carb count of 21 down to one net carb.

count net carbs - extend bar 3

You can see that they took the total carbs and then subtracted the fiber grams, maltitol (which is the sugar alcohol), and also some other carbs.

The other carbs have an asterisk next to it.

That asterisk tells you that nine carbs in the food are what they call, “Non-Factor.”  I can’t say that I understand that to be an official term, and I would say this math is iffy at best.

My Final Thoughts on Counting Net Carbs

The bottom line is…if you are counting net carbs, you may be inadvertently taking in more carbohydrate calories than you think you are.

This, of course, may also be interfering with your weight loss.

In my opinion, it is better to count total carbs and keep your diet easy and effective.

Thank you for reading! I hope this information will help you reach your health goals.

About the Author

Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.

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