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Net Carbs: What are they and How to Calculate them?

What are Net Carbs?

Net carbs are essentially carbohydrates that are absorbed by the body, including both simple and complex carbs. They represent the total amount of digestible carbohydrates in a food product or meal – i.e carbs that affect the blood glucose levels or require the body to secrete more insulin (or for those with diabetes, requires fast acting insulin to be injected). So, many people who are aiming to not have any spikes or lose weight or stay healthy or track their carbohydrates, avoid net carbs.

There are many different types of carbohydrate that are all digested and used differently by the body. As some carbs are not fully digestible, the total amount of carbs in a certain piece of food differs from the amount of net carbs. 

Calculating net carbs is particularly important for keto-dieters (or ketoers as we say!) as the ketogenic diet promotes a reduction in carbs that places your body in a metabolic state known as ketosis, where your body burns fats instead of carbohydrates for energy. 

It must be remembered that there is no formal (or government-regulated) definition of net carbs. Furthermore, conflicting and outdated information can make it difficult to calculate net carbs.

This article will explain what net carbs really are and provide a quick and easy way for you to calculate net carbs in any food.

Simple Carbs vs Complex Carbs

The two main types of carbs are simple carbs and complex carbs.

Simple carbs are made up of just one or two sugar molecules, so they are easily and faster digested (great for treating diabetic’s hypoglycemia). They occur in a variety of foods and drinks, including:

  • Fruits
  • Non diet Fizzy drinks
  • Sweets
  • Desserts
  • Milk
  • Honey

Complex carbs, on the other hand, contain chains that are several molecules long. This means that they take a little longer to break down and so they are a more lasting source of energy. 

The body is unable to fully digest some types of complex carb, such as fibre. Some foods that contain complex carbs include:

  • Cereals
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Beans and legumes

Total Carbs Vs Net carbs – What’s the Difference? 

The main difference between total carbs and net carbs is that total carbs are representative of all of the different types of carbs in a food or a meal. This category includes every type of carbohydrate: starches, dietary fibre, sugar alcohol, sucrose, fructose, polyols etc. Because your body treats carbs in different ways, you want to focus and track net carbs; carbs such as fibre and sugar alcohols do not count towards your carb macro limit for the day as they are non-digestible which means they are not turned into glucose and so, they have no impact on your blood sugar. Actually, fibre plays a very important role in your diet, so eating lots of fibre-rich foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and psyllium husk is good for your body.

On the other hand, net carbs only include the carbs that can be fully digested by the body and turned into glucose. This is the number that you count towards your daily carbs macro limit and avoid!

Calculating net carbs

You can calculate the approximate number of Net Carbs using this equation:

Total carbohydrates - Fibre - Sugar Alcohol = Net Carbs 

If you are calculating the net carbs of a whole food, you do not need to take sugar alcohols into account as whole foods are devoid of sugar alcohols. This includes:

  • Erythritol
  • Stevia
  • Xylitol
  • Mannitol
  • Lactitol

However, you must bear in mind that the following sugar alcohols do count (at least partially) towards net carbs:

  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Isomalt
  • Glycerin

To calculate the net carbs of a food that contains any of the above sugar alcohols, you should use this equation:

Total carbohydrates - Fibre - (Sugar Alcohol/2) = Net Carbs

This is because these sugar alcohols contribute about half a gram of carbs per gram.

The Bottom Line

Although the debate surrounding whether to calculate your total or net carbs isn’t likely to go away any time soon (specially with differences by countries e.g. UK and U.S systems), calculating net carbs can be a useful way to understand how your body processes different types of carbs, which can help you manage your blood, sugar, weight and overall health. 

The goal is to eat the number and type of carbs that allows you to achieve your health goals, no matter how you count them!