In the world of nutrition, carbs can be as controversial as white jeans after labor day. Which is due, in part, to a lot of misinformation about how they work in the body. Of course, not all carbs are created equal (the same goes for the other macronutrients, protein and fat) but that doesn’t mean anyone needs to avoid the entire category!
The term “net carb” has arisen over the past decade or so as a different way to look at carb intake. Is this something we should consider? Let’s see what the experts have to say about it:
What is a Net Carb, Anyway?
To understand net carbs, we should start with total carbs. Total carbs are all the starches, fiber and sugar found in your food. Nothing complicated there. Net carbs are a subset of the carbs in a food, those being the “active carbs” that are absorbed by your body and converted into glucose. As for the carbs that aren’t absorbed by your body? Those are fiber and sugar alcohol.
Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrate in a food. So if a protein bar has 12 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar alcohol, the net carbs would be 12 minus 4, or 8 grams.
Why does that number matter? The nutrition world is divided on whether, and how much, this number should matter. Those in the Yes camp claim it is an easy way to track the carbs that have an impact on your blood sugar, while the No camp believe it can be confusing, misleading, and generally unnecessary for those trying to manage their carbohydrate intake.
Pros of Counting Net Carbs
- It can encourage high fiber carbohydrates. Fiber promotes a feeling of fullness and can help control blood sugar. And most fiber-rich carbohydrates are nutrient dense carb choices (especially when its *not* a processed food), so it’s a win-win. Plus, getting enough fiber can improve your digestive health and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Which makes it a win-win-win, right?
- It could expand your palette...and nutrition intake. If you’ve been limiting the variety in your diet in order to limit your carbs, looking at net carbs could potentially open up more fiber rich plant foods that will improve your overall nutrient intake as well as feelings of fullness and satiation.
- It can be an important tool for managing health. Net carbs can be a helpful measure for people who need to watch their blood sugar or stick to a ketogenic diet, for reasons like managing diabetes and those on a ketogenic diet for neurological disorders.
Cons of Counting Net Carbs
- Net carbs don’t tell the whole nutrition story. Just because a food is low in net carbs doesn’t automatically mean it's healthy. It’s important to remember that protein, fat, and micronutrients matter, too! Plus, counting net carbs can encourage people to reach for processed foods with labels to make things easier, which might not be the best choice for a person’s overall health or nutrient needs.
- It’s not necessarily accurate. According to the American Diabetes Association, the effects of sugar alcohols can be unpredictable. Not every body absorbs them in the same way, meaning the can affect your blood glucose differently--so simply counting them out is not always accurate. It’s also important to remember that protein and fat play also part in how the body absorbs nutrients, not just carbs.
- Counting anything can be dangerous. Whether it's counting calories, carbs, or net carbs, tracking food can lead to restrictive and unhealthy eating habits. It can also lead to poor food choices in the name of making tracking easier.
- At best it's probably not necessary, and at worst...it's just a ploy. Here’s the quiet part, said out loud: The term “net carbs” was coined by food marketers as a way to appeal to people on low-carb diets. It’s a way for food marketers to sell products that imply fast-tracked weight loss. There is no proven benefit for the average person to track their net carbs, and in fact the confusion and potential for poor food choices and an overconsumption of carbs could outweigh the benefits.
Ultimately, the best thing to do is what works for you. As it goes for any nutritional approach, nothing is ever one size fits all. If you're interested in understanding more about your body's unique carbohydrate needs, consult a registered dietician.