Net Carbs vs Total Carbs: How do you count them?
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Monitoring your carbohydrate intake is a key factor in the ketogenic diet, because overdoing it a bit too much one day runs the risk of kicking you out of ketosis. But if you’re new to keto or don’t have that much experience with tracking macros, counting carbs can be challenging. You have total carbs, fibre, sugars, net carbs — what does all of this mean? We’re here to break down the mystery of total carbs vs. net carbs, and why understanding what net carbs are is key to keeping you in ketosis.
What are carbs?
In basic terms, carbohydrates are any molecules comprised of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, and are derived mainly from plant material. But in the world of nutrition, carbohydrates are one of the three classes of macromolecules, encompassing protein and fat as well.
Carbs are broken down into three main categories:
- Sugars: Sweet, short-chained carbohydrates found in many foods. This includes molecules like glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose.
- Fiber: Carbohydrates molecules that generally cannot be digested by humans. However, some fiber may be used by bacteria in the GI tract.
- Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules that are broken down into glucose molecules in the digestive tract.
Carbohydrates function in the body to provide energy. For the most part, carbs are broken down into glucose, which is absorbed directly into the blood providing the body with a quick source of fuel. However, fiber is an exception to that rule. The human body does not contain the enzymes needed to break down fire, so we therefore cannot digest it. Rather, fiber goes to feed good bacteria in the GI tract.
With the ketogenic diet, carbohydrates make up a very small portion of the food intake. What’s important to know about carbohydrates though is something called ‘net-carbs.’
What are net-carbs and how do you calculate them?
Carbohydrates that cause an insulin spike on the keto diet are a big no-no, but all carbs are not created equal. Net-carbs are the fraction of ‘digestible’ carbs. Your body absorbs them as some kind of sugar. They count towards your macros since you can use them for energy.
Carbs that cannot be absorbed sugars of some kind are the non-net carbs. Sometimes as the non-digestible carbs. Two of the most common ones in this category include fiber and sugar alcohols. Fiber is not digestible by you, but it is by your gut bacteria that happily transforms it into fats.
To determine the amount of net carbs in a food, you take:
Net carbs = Total carbs – (fibre + sugar alcohols)
What are total carbs?
If you’ve ever looked at a nutrition label, you’ll see that “total carbs” is listed, but what exactly does total carbs mean?
Well, exactly that — the total number of carbohydrates present in a specific food, accounting for both digestible and non-digestible components. It encompasses starch, fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols.
Is fiber a carb?
technically speaking, fiber is a carbohydrate. But in order to determine whether fiber will make or break your carb count, it’s important to differentiate between the two forms:
- Insoluble components: Includes traditional insoluble fibers like cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignins, as well as resistant starches.
- Soluble components: Includes traditional soluble fibers like glucans (e.g. in mushrooms) and pentosans (e.g. in barley), as well as well as oligosaccharides (e.g. in onions). Foods tend to have a mix of these.
Insoluble fiber has water-attracting properties that help to bulk up and soften stools, and decrease transit time through the intestinal tract. This is because they are resistant to fermentation (i.e. digestion) in the large intestine, so they pass through virtually untouched. Soluble fiber, on the other hand, is a source that readily holds water and forms a gel-like substance as it passes through the intestinal tract.
Unlike insoluble fiber, soluble fibers are able to ferment in the large intestine meaning they’re associated with a different signaling role in the digestive process .
Despite contributing to carb count, fiber is an important part of the diet for a few different reasons :
- Improves gastrointestinal health
- Improves glucose tolerance and insulin response
- Reduces risk factors for coronary heart disease (hyperlipidemia, hypertension, etc.)
- Reduces risk of developing certain cancers
- Increases satiety and helps with weight management
Why understanding net carbs is important on a low-carb or keto diet
As the makeup of foods differ, understanding the net carb count of your meals is important, as misinterpreting it can lead to overconsumption of carbs and getting kicked out of ketosis.
What are the benefits of carb restriction?
As carb restriction is becoming more popular, the number of studies conducted on the benefits of it have also increased. The big idea behind it is that the quantity and quality of carbohydrate sources we eat nowadays cause unhealthy insulin and blood glucose responses. In practice, this leads to an epidemic of metabolic syndrome spawning diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, cancer and so on. It follows then, that restricting or eliminating carbohydrates may help prevent or resolve many of these conditions.
- Reduce hunger and cravings
- Decrease triglyceride levels
- Increase HDL
- Lower fasting glucose and insulin levels
- Aid fat loss
- Reduce chronic, systemic inflammation
- Decrease levels of C-reactive protein, a general marker of inflammation
Specifically looking at how the body benefits from ketosis, the furthest end of carb restriction, there are further benefits:
- Improves brain health — Ketones appear to have a protective effect on the brain. They help to optimize oxidative stress derived signaling and improve mitochondrial function, suggesting they are beneficial for the treatment of some neurological disorders and brain conditions .
- Increased energy — Ketones burn as a cleaner source of fuel than glucose does, as they provide more energy and use less oxygen during metabolism
What is the glycemic index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of the impact of certain foods on blood sugar levels. It compares the rise in blood glucose evoked by specific foods in response to an equivalent dose of glucose pegged at 100 .
Foods range from 5 to even above 100. The higher the number, the larger the response that is elicited, meaning the larger the rise in blood glucose. On the flip side, foods with a low GI value cause a more gradual change in blood glucose and insulin levels.
Should the glycemic index matter to you?
You would think so, since one of the main things a keto diet helps with is stabilizing blood sugars. However, there are many foods that will score low on the glycemic index but high on the insulin index. In other words, you can be sure that the foods that skyrocket your blood sugar are bad for you but you can’t be sure that those that don’t are good for you (as you don’t know how high your insulin is rising).
The insulin index is a better indicator of a healthy metabolic response than the glycemic index.
What is the insulin index?
When we consume carbs, the body breaks the sugars and starches present in those foods into glucose or other small sugars (monosaccharides).These are absorbed into the bloodstream. The rate at which foods are broken down and absorbed differs drastically depending many factors about the food; some are broken down quicker and thus send a bad metabolic signal that exaggerates increases in blood sugars. Other foods, however, break down more slowly and thus signal a more appropriate increase.
But the blood sugar response is only part of the equation.
Even before blood sugars increase, the pancreas releases insulin to anticipate and optimize its food, including blood glucose.
So what is the insulin index?
It’s similar to the glycemic index in the sense that it measures the bodies response to specific foods. However, the insulin index focuses on how much insulin the body normally releases in response to a specific food or meal. Certain foods need more insulin to utilize them, whereas others need much less.
The insulin index is a great (but partial) indicator of whether or not a food prompts healthy metabolic responses. See our post on the insulin index for more.
Can you eat carbs and stay in ketosis?
The general breakdown of a ketogenic diet by calories from macronutrients is as follows:
This is a general indication, not a hard and fast rule for every person at every meal. For instance, many people naturally gravitate towards eating a higher percentage of protein on their ketogenic diet whilst in a fat loss phase. Other times, lean ketogenic athletes may gravitate towards particularly fatty meals when they’ve got lots of training to recover from.
There are no strict guidelines about how many carbs an individual can consume on a daily basis while following the ketogenic diet. It varies from person to person. There are, however, certain carbohydrates sources that are easier to eat than others while still remaining ketogenic.
For example, you could easily eat lots and lots of low-starch leafy green vegetables and stay in ketosis. But a meal with a normal amount of mashed sweet potato (280g) contains 50g of net carbs, enough to kick most people out of ketosis. More people could consume that 50g of net carbs and stay keto if they spread them over 2 to 3 meals and had them at the end of a meal (after the meat and veggies).
How many net carbs can I eat to stay in ketosis?
To get the most benefits from a low carb diet, sticking to the sensationally named ‘extremely low-carb diet’ (or keto) is your best bet. In terms of grams, most keto diets will recommend 50 to 60g of total carbohydrates per day, lumping in sugars and fiber. The net carb count on that will range roughly from 20 to 30g, with room for slight variation depending on the individual.
When you choose carbs, it’s best to tend towards those that are low in net carbs and dense in micronutrient. These foods will typically contain less than 10g of net carbs per serving. For a more detailed picture of what kind of carbohydrates you can eat on on a keto diet, check out our Ultimate Keto Diet Guide for Beginners here.
Net carbs food list
As a rule of thumb and as mentioned above, it’s best to stick to carbohydrates that have a net carb count of less than 10g per serving. We’ve outlined below some different choices available for consumption on the keto diet. But remember, it’s not just potatoes and fruit that contain carbs. Dairy contains a little and so do fattier plant foods like avocados and nuts/seeds.
|FOOD||SERVING SIZE||TOTAL CARBS||NET CARBS|
|Yogurt, whole milk||100g||5g||4.7g|
|Mayo, avocado oil||100g||0g||0g|
|Beef, ground (15% fat)||100g||0g||0g|
As you can see by the foods listed above, the total carb count and net carb count in certain foods varies quite drastically. Nutrita always make clear what the net carb content of a food is for over 6,000 foods and growing. It helps you learn to confidently determine whether your food choices align with your diet and health goals.
Knowing the difference between total carbs and net carbs is a simple yet crucial difference to learn when following a keto diet. Keeping net carbs is the most important factor enabling nutritional ketosis. Although determining the net carb count on a single food is relatively easy, doing so right when sitting down at a meal isn’t always practical.
When pressed for time just firing up Nutrita’s mobile app or check out the food search engine on our front page, and just look up the food: net carbs are listed. Once you’ve been following keto for a while you’ll progressively gain more more awareness about the net carb content of foods. You may also start to ‘feel’ the difference between being in or out of ketosis with a little experience. Net carbs is a basic concept underlying successfully ketogenic diets and it’s always a good idea to get the basics right when starting.
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Written by Sarah Neidler, PhD
Sarah Neidler did her PhD in cancer research at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow. She has a strong interest in nutrition and the ketogenic diet and believes that they are beneficial for the treatment and prevention of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. She loves cooking, reading, sewing, Yoga, and CrossFit.