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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 | 20 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?

  • 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

  • Mike says:

    Even most of these posts are not “facts”. Net carbs are not defined anywhere, nor has the process ever been tested anywhere for what does and does not comprise the “truth”. The truth is, *ALL* carbs are carbs. How much of a carb is digested by the body is the thing people are trying to measure using “net carbs”. The carbs in fruits and vegetables are *NOT* carb free and thus cannot be simply discarded (a prime example being a potato on which you gain considerable weight or raise your blood sugar level, most vegetables have *some* effect on your weight and/or blood sugar. Another good example that *has* been tested is that the energy required to completely digest a celery stalk (and complete digestion does not happen in the human body) requires more calories than are contained in the celery stalk (e.g., you, in theory, should burn more calories digesting celery than it provides). Secondly, the warnings against alcohol sugars are misstated. Those sugars are somewhere in between the desirable properties of carbs in certain vegetables and the carbs in processed sugars. Sorbitol does not digest the same as sucrose and you can substitute any sugar alcohol for any processed sugar.

    Thus, what’s important is what your body processes and what is unimportant is what your body does not process and NO ONE, any where or at any time has done a study, independently or collaboratively to definitively determine how these substances interact in your digestive system, how you can measure it, what you can trust, and, even when a good barometer exists, the differences between people’s metabolisms greatly impact results. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

    Your results *WILL* vary and you can only count on what you test on yourself. Notwithstanding, certain principles are valid in estimating how you will respond. Admonitions to avoid corn and potatoes are usually valid. Avoiding fats of all kinds is a good idea, but eliminating them is not good as some is necessary. Weigh carefully how you use nuts. Between their fatty consistency and the complications from allergies to diverticulitis can make nuts problematic and is true for most dense foodstuffs. However, people can’t overlook their protein needs as well. Remember this Carbs are fuel and burn, proteins are nutrients and build and fats are stores that preserve some fuel and nutrients to be burned more slowly when needed. With that in mind, select a well-balanced selection in moderation. Those of us challenged with abnormal metabolic systems (I have type II diabetes) need to make adjustments to accommodate deficiencies created by our condition. However, blanket statements like “eat a bunch of this” or “avoid that all together” are extremes and should rarely be heeded.

    Get to know yourself. If you’re looking for an easy fix, you aren’t going to find it. No one will make you a healthy diet – there’s no profit in it. You will have to make your own.

  • Tonya says:

    Thank you answered my question.

  • Soluble fiber is actually digested in the colon and re-absorbed back into the body as short chain fatty acids, so you’re still getting around 60-70% of the calories from fiber. Only insoluble fiber passes through unabsorbed, and this only accounts for a few grams at the most.

  • Pam says:

    Regarding Atkins – they not only subtracted the Dietary Fiber, but the Sugar Alcohols also. Example: 4 net carbs on front of box, on back of box it states: 22g- 9g fiber – 9 g of Sugar Alcohols = 4 grams net carbs.

  • Linda Hersey says:

    I thank you for this information. It was very helpful. I have been eating low carb for almost one year and have lost sixty pounds. I feel much better, have more energy and my overall health has improved.

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