April 14, 2024

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A guide to understanding net carbs

4 min read

The world of nutrition can be a maze of conflicting information, and one term that often raises questions is “net carbs.” While not officially recognized by all nutrition experts, they have gained popularity, especially in the context of low-carb diets.

In this article, we look to unravel the science behind net carbs, explain how to calculate them and weigh the pros and cons of counting these carbs in your dietary journey.

The concept of carbs offers a lens through which individuals can potentially refine their approach to carbohydrate consumption. As nutritional landscapes evolve and dietary trends surge, grasping the essence of net carbs could empower you to make informed decisions aligned with your health aspirations.


What are net carbs?

Net carbohydrates are essentially the carbs that the body absorbs and uses. (Jessica Lewis/Pexels)
Net carbohydrates are essentially the carbs that the body absorbs and uses. (Jessica Lewis/Pexels)

At its core, such carbs refer to the carbs that the body absorbs and utilizes. They include both simple and complex carbs found in various foods.

Simple carbs present in fruits, vegetables, milk, sugar, honey and syrup, contain one or two sugar units. Complex carbs, meanwhile, are found in grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes and consist of multiple sugar units.

When you consume carb-rich foods, enzymes in the small intestine break down most of the carbs into individual sugar units. The body can only absorb these individual sugar units.

However, not all carbs are processed in the same way. Fiber and sugar alcohols, for instance, cannot be completely broken down into individual sugars, leading to the concept of carbs.


How the body handles sugar alcohol carbs

Sugar alcohols, often found in sugar-free products and low-carb snacks, behave similarly to fiber but with some differences. Some sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed in the small intestine, with absorption percentages varying across different types.

Erythritol, for instance, has a glycemic index and insulin index close to zero, making it a favorable choice for those watching their blood sugar level. It’s absorbed in the small intestine and then excreted, contributing minimal calories.

Maltitol, commonly used in processed foods, has a different story. It’s partially absorbed in the small intestine, and the rest is fermented by bacteria in the colon. However, it has been reported to cause blood sugar spikes in individuals with diabetes and prediabetes.


How to calculate net carbs

Whole foods contain naturally occurring fiber, like fruits and vegetables. (Ella Olsson/Pexels)
Whole foods contain naturally occurring fiber, like fruits and vegetables. (Ella Olsson/Pexels)

Calculating carbs in whole foods

Whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, come with naturally occurring fiber. To calculate net carbs in these foods, subtract the fiber content from the total carb count.

For instance, if a medium avocado has 17.1 grams of total carbs and 13.5 grams of fiber, the net carb content would be 3.6 grams.


Calculating carbs in processed foods

Calculating net carbs becomes more intricate with packaged products. When dealing with fiber, most of it can be subtracted from the total carbs on the nutrition label.

However, if the ingredient list contains isomaltooligosaccharide (IMO), only half of its fiber carbs should be subtracted. Regarding sugar alcohols, you can generally subtract half of the carbs they contribute from the total carbs listed.

Erythritol is an exception; if it’s the sole sugar alcohol, its carbs can be fully subtracted. It’s important to note that the net carb value stated on the product label might differ from your own calculation, as some companies subtract all fiber and sugar alcohol carbs.


Are net carbs good or bad?

The verdict on whether net carbs are good or bad isn’t straightforward. For individuals looking to manage blood sugar level, like those with diabetes or prediabetes, tracking carbs might offer benefits.

By considering the impact of fiber and sugar alcohols, you can have a more accurate understanding of how certain foods affect your body. However, it’s crucial to remember that net carbs aren’t universally recognized in the field of nutrition.

Some experts argue that the concept oversimplifies the complexities of carbohydrate metabolism. Additionally, the effects of sugar alcohols can vary from person to person, and individual responses play a significant role.


Even while the phrase “net carbs” may not be widely accepted, knowing how your body reacts to various forms of carbohydrates can help you reach your health objectives.

Fiber and sugar alcohols are taken into consideration when calculating net carbohydrates, allowing for a more precise evaluation of how a food will affect your body.

Whether you decide to count carbs or not, keep in mind that everyone’s nutritional needs and responses are different. So speaking with a doctor is always a smart move in the direction of improved nutrition.



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