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What is the Difference Between Carbs and Net Carbs? How to Calculate Net Carbs On A Low-Carb Diet

Posted by | November 03, 2011 | Featured | 15 Comments

If there is anything worth counting, it’s carbs. Limiting carb intake maximizes fat-burning and helps to regulate blood sugar and insulin levels. But not all carbs are created equal.

The principal problem with many low-carb diet plans is that they unfairly vilify foods that seem high in carbs (such as vegetables) but are, in fact, NOT high in digestible (net) carbs.

So what is the difference between total carbs and net carbs?

There are basically two types of carbs – those which your body can digest and those it cannot. The type it can’t digest is principally fiber.

In America, food labels include fiber in the total carb count which gives an inaccurate measure of the food’s effect on your waistline. So most-low carb diets ask that you count “net carbs” – the ones that are actually digested.

The total carbohydrate number is not important. It is NET carbs that really matter since those are the ones that are being digested. Count your NET carbs, not your total carbs.

Non-fiber carbs = fattening
Fiber carbs = not fattening (and actually filling as well as beneficial for digestion and fat burning)

To calculate net carbs, simply subtract the dietary fiber content from the total carbs. In the picture to the right, the net carbs would be 15 – 5 = 10.

Carbs – Fiber = Net Carbs

Simple enough, right?

Well… not so fast. Here comes corporate trickery once again.

Beware of Low-Carb Products!

Eager to make a quick buck on low-carb bars, shakes, and candies, many companies have rushed to create products that have misleading labels that appear low-carb diet friendly. Unfortunately, many of these products are artificially sweetened with sugar alcohols like malitol, sorbitol, and lacitol which can be metabolized into sugar.

Sloppy labeling laws allow companies to include these sugar alcohols on the labels as FIBER even though they clearly are not.

I’ll get into the evils of sugar alcohols in an upcoming post, so stay tuned. For now, count your net carbs and steer clear of low-carb products. If you do eat anything with sugar alcohols, your best bet is to count them all since you really can’t believe the label.

In short, trust vegetables, not low-carb candies.


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  • This article was very informational… thank you. :)

      • Michelle says:

        Im confused as to the carb thing in Atkins bars. on the front of the package it say 2 g net carbs but on the wrappers it says 29 carbs….so if your only allowed 20 carbs a day how are the bars approved for your diet plan?

        • Emily Dewey says:

          Not sure about Atkins bars specifically, but many low carb bars are high in sugar alcohol, as mentioned in the post. Sticking to real, whole foods and staying away from processed/boxed/packaged food is a sure-fire way to have a naturally lower net-carb diet. – Emily, FBM Team Coach

  • Nikki says:

    So even though the Atkins granola (protein meal bars) say only 3 net carbs I am really eating 13 net carbs if I only subtract the dietary fiber and not the sugar alcohols?

  • [...] I should at this point explain the difference between Net Carbs and regular carbs. I am not a nutritionist so I Googled it and here is what I would from  the Atkins Diet Website:  “When you follow the Atkins Nutrition Approach, you actually count Net Carbs, which means the total carbohydrate content of the food minus the fiber content.  The Net Carb number reflects the grams of carbohydrate that significantly impact your blood sugar level.  These are the only carbs you need to count when you do Atkins.  Foods that are low in Net Carbs are foods like nutrient-dense vegetables (such as spinach and not as tastey  and cool vegigies like corn and peas )” ) and fruits that don’t have a significant impact on blood sugar and therefore don’t cause you to gain weight.” * Atkins website http://www.atkins.comThis too is also a great article to read:http://www.fatburningman.com/net-carbs-explaine [...]

  • sahand says:

    what about “Atkins” ?. i recently started buying Atkins products and looked at the nutrition facts and it said that it has “sugar alcohol” . i was wondering if those sugar alcohols are actually considered carbohydrates not net carbs. what should i do now? should i just look at the net carb setion or should i add the sugar alcohol to the net carp ?!

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  • Tom says:

    So is it good to have a high number or low number of net carbs? For example, Quest Bars advertise being low carb, but they have 21 grams of total carbs, 17 grams grams of dietary fiber, and 4 grams of net carbs. So are they really “low carb?”

    Thanks for your help

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