Net Carbs: What They Actually Mean
Carbs. You've heard of them. Whether you've tried to diet in the past or just become familiar with looking at the back of nutrition labels, they're everywhere.
Because carbs can be comprised of sugar, fiber, and starch, they can affect your blood sugar, energy levels, and fat storage differently. Consequently, they can have different effects on your health goals.
What are net carbs? Why is it important to keep track of them, and how do you calculate net carbs? By answering these questions, you can reach your goals faster, stay energized, keep hunger under control, and so much more. And if you're following the ketosis diet or any other low-carb type diet, knowing what net carbs are is especially important!
To understand the benefits of net carbs, we'll first quickly run through the different ways to classify carbs.
Carbs: The Primary Fuel Source
For most people on a traditional western diet, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel. This is because a diet high in carbs produces stores of glucose throughout the body that are easy to use and bioavailable.
There are various types of carbs that we consume which break down to form glucose (used for energy) at different rates. This rate is known as the glycemic index. Simple carbs are turned to glucose quickly, which causes our blood sugar levels to elevate, signaling to the pancreas to produce insulin in order to stabilize the blood glucose levels. Insulin puts excess glucose in our blood into storage. In other words, excess blood sugar turns into fat.
A slower breakdown of the carbohydrate (or lower glycemic index) is more advisable because the slower breakdown and lower glycemic index mean less of an insulin spike (and less glucose converted to fat)!
Studies show having high and irregular insulin levels cause your cells to absorb more glucose than is needed, and the excess will be stored as fat. Therefore, digesting more complex carbohydrates will help to manage insulin levels as well as belly fat (Erion, 2017).
Before we talk about net carbs, it’s important to know the difference between carbs. There are different ways to classify carbs, such as effective and non-impact carbohydrates.
There are different ways to classify carbs: effective and non-impact, simple and complex carbs. It can be confusing because these classifications often overlap. However, understanding these classifications is important to understand the significance of net carbs.
Effective carbs (also known as impact carbs) directly influence blood sugar levels! The whole idea behind low-carb diets is to limit effective carbs and, subsequently, minimize the negative effect on blood sugar levels as well as prevent energy dips and avoid carbs converting to fats!
Effective carbs can include both simple and complex carbs:
Simple carbs can be broken down quickly into glucose. They are also referred to as high glycemic carbs because they cause spikes in insulin. This can result in energy and productivity crashes, more glucose being stored as fat, increase in hunger, and reduces the body’s sensitivity to insulin (Bansal, 2016).
While both simple and complex carbs affect blood sugar levels, complex carbs take longer to break down into glucose so they are comparatively better for you because they do not cause havoc on your insulin levels!
Low glycemic index carbs help keep you full longer, boosts energy levels and moods, and protects against diseases- especially heart diseases (Bansal, 2016).
By contrast, non-impact carbs are low glycemic-index carbs and have little to no effect on blood sugar levels, compared to high glycemic carbs! No-impact carbs are generally in the green zone for low-carb dieters. That's right, that means little to no insulin spike, no subsequent energy crash, and you're avoiding excess glucose being stored as fat (Gustin, 2018).
Two examples of non-impact carbs are:
- Sugar Alcohols
While fiber and sugar alcohols technically have “carbs”, fiber cannot be digested so they just pass through the body unused and sugar alcohols are digested but have little or no effect on blood glucose levels.
Fiber is made up of glucose, but these glucose chains are too long and complex for the body to break them down effectively, so they pass through the body without being digested.
Sugar alcohols are not made of glucose at all. Therefore they cannot directly affect blood glucose levels. Once again, this means no insulin spike, no energy crash, or excess energy being stored as fat.
Understanding the concept behind net carbs is crucial to staying on track with your weight loss results. If you're following the keto diet or a low-carb diet, learning what net carbs are is going to be a game changer.
What Are They?
Net carbs are basically the number of “effective carbs” in a particular meal. When a food contains fiber and sugar alcohols, these two things do not affect blood sugar the way sugar and starches do. So if you’re trying to lose weight, keep your blood sugar stable, and reduce insulin spikes, you can essentially eliminate sugar alcohols and fiber from the total carb count.
Why Count Net Carbs & How to Calculate Them
It’s important to understand the net carb count because these are the carbs that will influence our glucose levels, insulin spike, and potentially be turned to fat.
By counting net carbs, you're also becoming aware of how much (or little) fiber you are actually consuming. Fiber is good because it:
-Aids with digestion and supporting healthy gut bacteria
- Helps add volume to your meals
- Keeps hunger under control
Low-carb diets, like the ketogenic diet, for example, is based on measuring “net carbs” to ensure you’re eating enough fiber and the right kind of carbs (non-impact or low-impact) to maintain balanced blood sugar levels. On keto, the idea isn’t to get rid of carbs entirely, but to reduce your consumption of them to a point that your body burns fat for fuel instead of carbs.
The goal? Make sure the carbs you are eating have a low “net worth” once the fiber and sugar alcohols have been removed.
There are several reasons to calculate net carbs:
- Measuring influence on blood sugar and insulin levels
- Trying to lose weight
- Following a special diet (especially the ketogenic diet where net carbs are especially important since carbs are limited)
To calculate net carbs, subtract the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols (when applicable) from the total grams of carbs. Basically, net carbs is a measure of effective carbs because we’re eliminating non-impact carbs from the total count.
The key is to choose an appropriate amount of “no-impact” carbs (carbs with a low glycemic index) instead of “effective carbs” if you’re trying to limit your carb intake. Calculating net carbs will help you realize which carbs are actually going to influence your blood sugar, and which ones are just helping aid in digestion, curb hunger, and support gut health.
If you’re looking for a way to flavor your food and desserts without adding to your carb count, stick with options that are low net carbs, as this will help you stay on track with your weight loss goals. If you’re following the keto diet, this will also help you keep your carb count low for the day, so you can stay in ketosis.
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Bansal, Tripty. “How Glycemic Index of Food Effects Your Health.” Your Home for Health, Practo, 19 Aug. 1970, www.practo.com/healthfeed/how-glycemic-index-of-food-effects-your-health-24150/post.
Department of Health & Human Services. “Carbohydrates and the Glycaemic Index.” Better Health Channel, Department of Health & Human Services, 31 July 2013, www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/carbohydrates-and-the-glycaemic-index.
Erion, Karel A., and Barbara E. Corkey. “Hyperinsulinemia: a Cause of Obesity?” National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health, 2 May 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5487935/?fbclid=IwAR2ed1zy1OlukKKxiAyceknhYA5l4VdATCMiENfMNFw2t0T49StMokCtEYI.
Gustin, Anthony. “What Are Net Carbs? The Difference Between Effective And Non-Impact Carbs.” Perfect Keto Exogenous Ketones, 17 Jan. 2018, perfectketo.com/what-are-net-carbs/.
“Insulin and Weight Gain: Keep the Pounds Off.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Nov. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/in-depth/insulin-and-weight-gain/art-20047836.
Nilsson, Nick. “What Are Non-Impact Carbs, Net Carbs and Effective Carbs?” Anatomy of the Hip Flexor Muscles - Iliacus and the Psoas Major, Iliopsoas, Rectus Femoris, www.fitstep.com/2/1-how-to-lose-fat/eating-for-fat-loss/non-impact-carbs-net-carbs-effective-carbs.htm.