To follow a low carb or keto diet you need to keep track of how many grams of carbohydrates you’re eating each day. However there are two camps when it comes to counting carbs, those who count total carbs and those who count net carbs. So what’s the difference, and which way is the right way? We’ll tackle those questions in this article.
Net carbs are sometimes called impact carbs, because they are the carbohydrates that your body can digest and therefore they are the ones that can impact your blood sugar and insulin levels. And when we define net carbs in that way, it implies that some carbohydrates resist digestion, and that is true. For instance, fiber along with certain sugar alcohols and allulose are not easily or completely digested by your body, so their impact on your blood sugar is not as significant.
That sounds like a really good deal in essence, you can eat more carbohydrates without the metabolic consequences that encourage weight gain. But like many things that sound really good there is more to the story, and here is where it gets tricky at best, and downright deceptive at worst.
There is a difference in how net carbs are tallied for different foods. If carbohydrates come solely from whole foods like vegetables and fruits, then net carbs are fine to count and the equation is simple. In the case of whole foods, net carbs are calculated by subtracting the grams of fiber from the total carb count.
For example, a cup of strawberries has 11.7 total grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber. If you were to eat the whole cup, you will have consumed 8.7 net carbs. So with whole foods it simply comes down to what you prefer to track, total or net carbs. However if you include packaged or processed foods in your low carb diet, additional subtractions apply, namely sugar alcohols and allulose.
The challenge is that this extra math opens the door to deception, which can prevent you from getting the weight loss benefits of your low carb or keto diet. Sugar alcohols and allulose can be added to foods to make them sweeter and improve their crave factor and texture. As we mentioned earlier, they are metabolized differently than other food nutrients, therefore they have less of an impact on your blood sugar, than the sugar they are replacing.
So for the most part the carbs they contain get to be subtracted from the total carb count and again that sounds like a great deal, you get to eat your sweet treats without the high carb consequences that cause you to gain weight, but does it seem too good to be true?
Let’s look at an example of a box of brownie mix. It can say keto friendly and contain only 3 grams of net carbs per brownie. That sounds great, however if we look at the nutrition facts, we might see that each brownie contains 17 total carbs. So how did they accomplish that 14 carb drop? Well, if we look at the fine print, we also might see that there are 4 grams of fiber and they added 5 grams of sugar alcohol and 5 grams of allulose. Despite having no added sugar, brownies are a very sweet dessert, packed with 200 calories. That sweetness will keep your sweet tooth alive, making it harder to stick with your diet when faced with future temptations, and the calories could easily derail your weight loss.
So which way is the right way to count carbs? Well, neither way is wrong, but counting total carbs has the edge over counting net carbs for four reasons. First, it’s easier when you count total carbs, there is nothing to calculate. Keep things simple and you are more likely to follow through with your plan and have long term success.
Second, not all sugar alcohols are zero impact carbs, some can be absorbed into your small intestine and cause a rise in blood sugar, for example maltitol, which is a popular sweetener in keto friendly snacks. It has a glycemic index of 35. What that means to you, is that it is getting into your bloodstream and impacting your blood sugar level.
The third reason we recommend counting total carbs, not net carbs is what we will call marketing reasons. Like in the brownie mix, the front of the package might boldly state that there are 3 grams of net carbs per serving, you need to read the fine print on the side of the box to discover the math needed to reduce the 17 total carbs down to 3 net carbs.
Lastly you want to consider the addictive nature of sweets. Whole foods do not contain significant amounts of sugar alcohols and allulose. Those items are added to processed foods to increase the crave factor. This can sabotage your weight loss in two ways. These foods are calorie dense and they keep you hooked on sugar. Those two things can easily derail your weight loss progress. Fortunately, when you follow a well formulated low carb or keto diet, there is no need for processed foods. You get to enjoy savory meals that keep hunger and cravings away naturally.