Net Carbs vs Total Carbohydrates
If you’re considering a low-carbohydrate diet, you know you need to restrict carbohydrates for your overall health. But are all carbohydrates created equal? What is a net carb, and how does it differ from total carbs?
Read on to learn more about carbohydrates and how to track them on a low carb diet.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients used as fuel by the body, along with proteins and fats. They are found in many common foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates include sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose, while complex carbohydrates include starches, fibers, and glycogen.
When you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into smaller sugar molecules, such as glucose, which can be used as a source of energy.
Once carbohydrates reach the small intestine, the pancreas releases enzymes to break down complex carbohydrates into individual glucose molecules, along with other monosaccharides like fructose and galactose. These smaller molecules (“simple sugars”) are then absorbed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream.
After absorption, the glucose is transported via the bloodstream to various cells throughout the body. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, plays a crucial role in regulating glucose levels in the blood. This glucose will either be used as immediate energy, stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, or stored as fat.
It’s important to note that simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits or refined sugars, are quickly digested and can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, such as those found in vegetables and whole grains, take longer to digest and absorb. This results in a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream and necessitates less insulin.
Another type of carbohydrate is fiber. Fiber is not fully digestible by the human body. Unlike other carbohydrates, fiber cannot be broken down into glucose molecules that can be absorbed by the small intestine. Instead, it passes through the digestive system largely intact and is eliminated as waste. However, some types of fiber can be partially fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, producing short-chain fatty acids that can provide some energy and other health benefits.
While fat and protein are required to sustain human life, carbohydrates are not considered essential because the body has the ability to produce glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis [1,2,3]. Glucose is a vital fuel source for the body and can be synthesized from non-carbohydrate sources, such as amino acids and glycerol (derived from the breakdown of fats). Therefore, while glucose is important to the body, dietary carbs are not.
Total Carbs vs Net Carbs
Total carbs refer to the overall amount of carbohydrates in a food product, including complex and simple carbohydrates, fiber, and sugar alcohols. Net carbs refer to the amount of carbohydrates that have an impact on blood sugar levels, which excludes fiber and some sugar alcohols . Thus, net carbs are simply total carbs minus fiber and certain sugar alcohols.
Why Track Net Carbs
On a ketogenic diet, the goal is to keep your carb intake very low–typically under 50 grams of net carbohydrates per day–so that your body enters a state of ketosis and burns its own stored fat for fuel.
While ketogenic and low carb diets are famous for weight loss, restricting net carbs offers a number of cardiometabolic health benefits . Reducing carbs is beneficial in managing conditions such as epilepsy, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, and some neurodegenerative disorders .
Embarking on any health journey can seem daunting. Each person’s nutritional needs, metabolic health, and individual responses to a dietary approach can vary, but reducing your net carbs can be a simple, easy way to improve your health.
- Tinguely D, Gross J, Kosinski C. Efficacy of Ketogenic Diets on Type 2 Diabetes: a Systematic Review. Curr Diab Rep. 2021 Aug 27;21(9):32. doi: 10.1007/s11892-021-01399-z. PMID: 34448957; PMCID: PMC8397683.
- Broom GM, Shaw IC, Rucklidge JJ. The ketogenic diet as a potential treatment and prevention strategy for Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrition. 2019 Apr;60:118-121. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2018.10.003. Epub 2018 Oct 10. PMID: 30554068.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.