Difference Between Carbs and Net Carbs


If you are trying to lose weight, one of the most common pieces of advice that you will get is to cut the carbs out of your diet. It sounds simple enough. But, like everything, it gets complicated fast if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The big debate around net carbs centers on the fact that when a nutrition label lists total carbohydrates, it includes fibers along with sugars. So if you’re just trying to avoid all carbs, you’ll end up skipping out on foods that are actually very good for you, like vegetables, because they’re high in fiber.

The reason fiber is okay is that it is not easily absorbed into our systems. Sugars, on the other hand, are absorbed quickly, leading to a spike in blood sugar levels. In the short time, this gives us a burst of energy. If we don’t use it up, however, that energy becomes fat.

The idea behind net carbs, therefore, is that you take fiber out of the equation when you are trying to limit your total carb intake. On properly labeled products, this is very easy to do. Simply subtract the number of grams of fiber from the number of total carbohydrates in the product.

Unfortunately, many food companies have made it a little more complicated than that. This is because they count sugar alcohols as fiber instead of sugar. Sugar alcohols make up the bulk of the artificial sweeteners on the market. Food companies like to tout their products as healthy because they have replaced sugar carbohydrates with these sugar alcohol fiber carbohydrates. Science says, not so fast.

Sugar alcohols have been around for a while and are familiar in products like chewing gum, but they still need to be researched more carefully. We know very little about what the long term effects may be of consuming these compounds in large quantities. Many people experience gastrointestinal problems when they ingest products high in sugar alcohols.

Not all sugar alcohols are the same. Some do have a higher glycemic index, creating an insulin spike much like sugar does. This can be particularly dangerous to diabetics who believe they are making a healthy choice because a product is advertising itself as low carb based on net carb counts, without including the sugar alcohols.

The true problem here is that there are no clear regulations on what qualifies something as “low carb” or what a net carb truly is. The front of a box might promise a low carb content, but it is always smart to look at the back of a box before making your purchasing decisions. Until the FDA gives official guidelines for net carbs, it’s safer to stick with counting total carbs.

The other problem with net carbs is that they do not take calories into account. If you are avoiding carbs in an effort to lose weight, the important thing to remember is that what ultimately determines whether you lose weight or not is the number of calories that you are consuming.

Many people are looking at different products that are marketed as healthy and trying to figure out how many carbs the product contains and which ones really count. In the middle of the debate over whether something has 30 carbs or 2 net carbs, it is easy to overlook the fact that it has 260 calories. Not a good option for a snack no matter what the carb content is.

Marketing companies use all different terms to convince you that their product is healthy. They have done an excellent job of convincing people everywhere that net carbs, which they also call impact carbs, are the only things that really have an impact on your diet. This simply isn’t true.

Nutrition is a very broad and complicated subject. The latest trends are often proven false within a few months and often never have any real scientific backing in the first place. Net carbs may well prove to follow that same trend as researchers devote more time and effort into creating a clear definition for them. In the meantime, here are a few simple guidelines to keep you healthy.

1. All Calories Count
The only real way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you eat. Low carb foods with high calorie counts are not your friend.

2. Read the Back
Marketing companies are allowed to put almost whatever they want on the front of their product. The back of the box is where the real information is. Just because something promises to be low carb doesn’t mean that it really is.

3. Watch for Marketing Traps
Net carbs is a made up term that companies use to try to sell more products. Until the FDA investigates the matter more thoroughly, people can define net carbs however they want. Even if you decide that one company is trustworthy in how they calculate carbs, it doesn’t mean that all of them are.

4. Avoid Processed Foods
The best way to improve your diet is to eat more whole foods. Fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of your diet. As an added bonus, you can be certain that these foods don’t contain sugar alcohols, which need to be researched more thoroughly before we know if they are truly safe.

It is true that not all carbs are created equal. Net carbs are one way to limit the bad carbs without cutting out all the good carbs as well. But we don’t have the full story on them yet and they don’t take everything into account. So before you jump aboard this bandwagon, do your research and stay healthy.