Net Carbs vs Total Carbs with Macros
What are Net Carbs?
When you eat foods that contain carbs, your body’s enzymes break them down into individual sugar molecules to then be used as energy by the body. Net carbs, or digestible carbs as they’re also known, refers to all carbs that are absorbed by the body.
So what does this mean? That some carbs aren’t absorbed by the body? Umm well yes actually! Unfortunately not all carbs are created equally and here’s why carbs get complicated. Fiber and sugar alcohols are not digested by the body or they don’t impact blood sugar like other types of sugars. Manufacturers have jumped on this as a marketing ploy and branded their product’s packaging with the phrase “net carbs” and subtracting the fiber and sugar alcohol content from the total carbohydrate value that they’re required to display by law on their nutrition labels.
If you read our recent post on fiber, you’ll know that fiber is a form of carbohydrate. Insoluble fiber isn’t broken down by the body as it passes through the body unchanged. Soluble fiber remains relatively undigested until it arrives in the colon. Unlike other carbs, soluble fiber is not broken down by enzymes, but it is partially fermented by bacteria in the gut to produce short-chain fatty acids. This produces energy for the body (i.e. calories) but unlike other carbohydrates these calories do not raise the blood sugar. Soluble fiber is thought to only contribute 1-2 calories per gram, (although some scientists say it could be 2-4g) unlike starches and sugars which contribute 4 calories per gram.
Are you still with me?
Here’s a quick summary for you: The body’s response to naturally occurring fiber is different to other forms of carbohydrates. Insoluble fiber isn’t digested. Soluble fiber is partially absorbed & broken down by bacteria in the colon where it is fermented into short chain fatty acids. Soluble fiber potentially only contributes 2 calories / gram and has a neutral or beneficial effect on blood sugar.
I’m aware that this revelation is probably sparking all sorts of concerning questions for most of you like, “if the body isn’t fully digesting all of our fiber then should we track just some of it?”, “if fiber is not treated as sugar should we track it as something other than carbs?”, “should we track net carbs & how do we do that?” Great questions! I’m so glad I opened up this can of worms.
Because of these findings in relation to fiber, there are some people who believe that it is not “correct” to count fiber towards your carbohydrates when you’re tracking macros. A daily goal for fiber intake should still be pursued, but fiber can be considered “macro-free” so to speak. We’re not here to debate whether or not this premise is right.The verdict’s still out on the science scene so why would we?! But we can tell you how to calculate net carbs if that’s the route you choose to follow and tell you what we do. Spoiler alert, we track fiber as carbs contributing 4 calories per gram. The End! But if you want to learn more then feel free to read on.
Calculating Net Carbs in whole foods
Firstly, it’s important to note that nutrition labels do not distinguish between the types of fiber in your whole foods. Food tends to be richer in one type of fiber but most foods containing fiber do contain some of both soluble and insoluble fiber. It’s thought that about one-third of fiber in food is soluble fiber – this is the type of fiber that does contribute to calories. So how would you calculate your net carbs? Well there’s two schools of thought:
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Why keep track of Net Carbs?
Great question! Let’s draw up list of pros and cons and then I’ll let you be the judge.
1. Increases better food choices
For example, instead of choosing processed foods like crackers, cakes or cookies, you might go for something like blackberries, avocado or oatmeal which are high in fiber and so their net carb impact is low. This is particularly beneficial for those following a ketogenic diet who are limited to 20 grams total of carbs a day.
2. Promotes higher fiber intake
Check out our post on fiber to learn about its health benefits. If you’re tracking your intake of fiber because you’re only counting net carbs, this may lead to a greater awareness and increase in your consumption of fiber rich whole foods.
3. Reduces risk of hypoglycemia
For diabetics who use insulin it’s important to be aware of carbs that are not impacting your blood sugars. Taking insulin to cover all carbs may result in hypoglycemia or low blood sugar when you’re consuming carbs that have minimal impact to blood sugar.
Calculating net carbs is not precise. There is a lot of conflicting research out there about the exact impact of fiber in the body and individual responses to them. There is also debate about the caloric effect of soluble fiber.
2. May cause excess consumption of sugar-free treats
Instead of opting for a well-balanced meal, you find yourself reaching for a protein bar “low in net carbs”. Substituting real food for processed food is never going to be the healthier option. As previously mentioned, the full effects of synthetic fiber and sugar alcohols is not entirely certain.
3. Overly complicated and time consuming
I don’t know how you feel about all of this, but I have an intense headache from writing this article. If I had to start removing my fiber from my carbs every day I would find this pretty tedious. I’m not about to whip out my calculator every time I eat some avocado even if it does “save” me 5g of carbs. The additional time spent is not worth the bonus bite I might get at the end of the day.
The Bottom Line
If you’re attributing somewhere between 15%-20% of your carbohydrate intake to naturally occurring dietary fiber, then you will be meeting the daily recommended value of fiber and helping to keep your blood sugar levels in check.
Whether you choose to count total carbs or net carbs, be consistent with your method. The key is always to eat the right amount of carbs for your body and to do that in the most sustainable way possible. Remember that at the end of the day this has to suit your lifestyle so don’t go trying to force a square peg in a round hole because it’s not going to get you the results you’re looking for anyway.
Do you have any thoughts on fiber and net carbs? Let us know what you do and why you do it by commenting below!