If you’re trying to eat healthier chances are you’re well aware of the benefits of logging your food. Setting calorie goals and balancing macronutrients can be very helpful (Note: for some! Not everyone likes tracking for various reasons, and that’s ok!)
One metric is a bit more controversial. Enter net carbs, aka “impact carbs” or “active carbs,” a category of carbohydrates that’s increasingly marketed on food packaging. An invention of food marketers, net carbs emerged with the low-carb and keto diet craze as more people started counting (and avoiding) carbs.
In short, net carbs are calculated by taking the total amount of carbohydrates in food and subtracting dietary fiber and sugar alcohol. Carbs – fiber – sugar alcohols = net carbs. The theory being that neither fiber (or sugar alcohols) are not digested by the body It’s generally accepted that the fiber in whole foods isn’t digested and absorbed, however, not all experts agree on this point.
Net carbs are tricky because every person is different, and no particular approach is appropriate for everyone. It’s important to remember that carbs are not the enemy. Just counting net carbs doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to overall nutrition. For example, there’s a significant difference between foods that are low net carb and very high in fat versus foods that are low net carb and very high in fiber.
Should you count total or net carbs? It depends on what your goal is and how sensitive to carbs you are. Some people may be affected by the tiniest amount of carbs from berries, while others can eat most foods without issues.
Pros: If you need to watch your blood sugar or stick to a ketogenic diet, you might benefit from considering net carbs. This could be the case if you have hard-to-manage diabetes or a neurological condition that calls for this diet, like a seizure disorder. The positive nutritional impact of being aware of net carbs may help you choose foods that are higher in fiber, which can help improve your digestive health and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cons: The idea that if you aren’t absorbing these carbs as energy, they “don’t count” may be misleading. Mostly in processed foods. For example, a protein bar with 15 grams of carbs, 9 grams of dietary fiber and 2 grams of erythritol would have a total of 4 net carbs. Here’s the bottom line, don’t get fooled by the net carb marketing ploy. If you only track “net carbs,” you could quickly be consuming hundreds of grams of carbohydrates more than you think. Stop reading the labels with the flashy designs. If the bar says it has 15 total grams of carbs – count it as that. We don’t know positively for sure how fiber affects your blood sugar, and we know even less if sugar alcohols do or don’t either. Plus, alcohol sugars, for the most part, are artificial and gross.
Ok, so what about counting total or net carbs in fruits and vegetables? That’s up to you. I don’t because I don’t want to get into the mind games of “If I subtract the fiber from that avocado I ate, I can eat ten more carbs somewhere else.” That would drive me nuts. I think it’s important to know general nutrition data (see attached charts) and make the majority of your veggies green ones vs. the starchier ones (i.e., sweet potatoes). But don’t overthink it after that. You have more important things to do!
Experts are split on whether net carbs are vastly more critical than total carb. But they agree on one thing: No matter your goal, it’s essential to eat a variety of nutritious and satisfying whole foods and get sufficient fiber.
Bottom Line: There is no “wrong” way; you can use either total carbs or net carbs. Choosing the “best” means for you depends on what you are trying to achieve. I’m attaching some charts with the “net” carb amounts of all the glorious vegetables and fruits. Tracking your macros is not inherently about weight loss. It’s about being more informed when making food choices and learning how much you need to feel your personal best.
Critical thinking is key to separating facts from personal opinions and unproven theories. With the ever-increasing amount of misinformation, it’s easy for people to get confused and fall for diet or lifestyle dogma. My advice is always to do your research and learn what works best for you – no diet plan fits all, and you may need to make small adjustments to meet your needs.
Christina MS, CNS, LN