Understanding macronutrients, or macros, is important to ensure you’re getting the right balance of foods to meet your energy needs. Carbohydrates, or carbs, as you’ve probably heard them referred to, are just one of three macronutrients that your body needs to function properly. We highly suggest you revisit this blog here on macros for the full scoop, but simply put, carbs are sugar molecules that your body breaks down into glucose.
You need glucose to function; nearly every cell, tissue, muscle and organ uses this as their prime source of fuel. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that carbohydrates make up 45% to 65% of total daily calories. So, if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day.
Carbohydrates are found in two forms, simple and complex carbs. Both types of carbs contain saccharides, or sugar molecules, but differ when it comes to the number of saccharides they contain. While you may have heard simple carbs grouped as refined sugar products and complex carbs as their whole grain counterparts, it’s actually not so black and white. Let’s clear up the confusion here first.
Understanding Simple Carbs vs Complex Carbs
Simple carbs are made of smaller chains of sugar molecules known as monosaccharides (single sugar molecules) and disaccharides (double sugar molecules). They are broken down quicker than their complex carbs counterparts during digestion because of their structure. But, reader beware, sugar in reference to simple carbs shouldn’t be met with the negative connotation it can sometimes to get.
While simple carbohydrates are found in foods that contain added sugar (like sodas, packaged cookies and baked goods) that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we limit to less than 10% of our total caloric intake, they’re also found in whole foods such as certain fruits and dairy products with naturally occurring simple sugars. Be mindful of cancelling out all simple sugars from your diet, for as you can see simple sugars like fruit and dairy certainly have a place!
Complex carbs are made of longer chains of sugar molecules known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. Sources of complex carbs include whole grains, pulses and lentils, root vegetables like potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables like apples and broccoli. They take longer to digest than simple carbs, meaning the effect you’ll experience on your blood sugar is more gradual when you eat complex carbohydrates.
You may have heard complex carbs referred to as both starches and fiber. Both are certainly complex carbohydrate sources, but vary in the way in which the body digests them. For instance, complex carbs from starches are digested in your body, whereas complex carbs from fibers aren’t digested in the body. Instead, foods with dietary fibers support healthy bacterial growth in your gastrointestinal system and help keep your bowels running smoothly. Having adequate intakes of dietary fiber in your diet has been shown to benefit multiple areas of your health, from managing blood sugars and blood cholesterol and more.
Understanding these differences in carbohydrate types is important when identifying how net carbs versus total carbohydrates are calculated in a keto* friendly diet.
The Difference Between Total Carbs and Net Carbs
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the nutrition facts panel, labeling regulations, and requirements that you see on packaged food products sold in the United States of America today. When you flip over a food item, the total carbohydrates you see on a label consists of the grams of both simple and complex carbohydrates that particular food item contains. Sugar, starches, and dietary fiber are included in the total carbohydrate number.
As you can see below, the nutrition fact panel further breaks down the total carbohydrate amount into the amount of dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars the food item contains. If you look closer, you’ll notice that there is no mention of the term net carbs. This is because this term is not legally defined by the FDA, but rather a term that has many definitions.
According to registered dietitian nutritionist Amy Cohn, Senior Nutrition Manager of General Mills Morning Foods Division, “Given the rise of lower carbohydrate diets, net carb is a term gaining popularity despite there not yet being any universal definition.” Cohn shares that an important part of net carb counting is looking at the carbohydrates that are affecting glycemia, or blood sugars, and those that aren’t. “For instance, those counting net carbs would subtract not only dietary fiber from total carbohydrate counts but also sugar alcohols, like erythritol and mannitol, to get the total net carb amount of an item.”
Confused? Don’t worry, we’ll cover this a bit further before we dive into the math!
Understanding the Impact of Sugar Alcohols & Other Sugar Replacements
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that are naturally found in foods like strawberries, apples, and avocados, or commercially produced from starch and sugar. Common sugar alcohols used in products today include sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, xylitol, and erythritol.
While sweet like sugar, sugar alcohols provide fewer calories per gram than sugar and are only partially absorbed in the gut. As a result, sugar alcohols have a lesser effect on blood glucose than other carbohydrate sources. But not all sugar alcohols are the same. For instance, sorbitol and mannitol may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some individuals, so you will see warnings on products that contain these sugar alcohols.
How To Calculate Net Carbs
Remember, since there is no single definition of net carbs, calculating net carbs can be done in a variety of ways. Some will simply subtract non-digestible carbs (like dietary fiber) from total carbs for a quick net carbs calculation. Others will take this a step further and factor in the other non-digestible carbs like the sugar alcohols mentioned above since they aren’t digested in the same way as traditional carbohydrates in the body. Stay with us, we’ll do it together now!
1. Start with Serving Size
The first thing you need to do when calculating net carbs is to check the serving size. Determine if you'll be eating just one serving or more than one. If you're eating or drinking more than one serving, you will need to multiply the figures obtained from the labels by the number of servings you will be eating. For example, if you're eating two servings, you will multiply total carbs, fiber and other nutrients by two.
2. Subtract Fiber
Locate the fiber content and total carbohydrate listings on the nutrition label. Then, subtract the fiber from the total carbs. For example, if a food label states 40 grams of total carbs and 5 grams of fiber, here’s how this would look: subtract 5 from 40 and get 35 grams for this step.
40 grams of total carbohydrates – 5 grams of dietary fiber = 35 grams of net carbs
3. Subtract The Sugar Alcohols
The different kinds of sugar alcohols have different effects on glucose levels. Read on for how to incorporate the different kinds of sugar alcohols into your net carb calculations.
A. Remember, slower processing sugar alcohols means that they have less impact than other sugars, so you will need to subtract only half of their total value. For example, if that same food with 40 grams of total carbs had 8 grams of sugar alcohols like sorbitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, and/or xylitol, in addition to the 5 grams of fiber, your math would look like this:
40 grams of total carbohydrates – 5 grams of dietary fiber – [8 grams sugar alcohols/2] = 31 grams of net carbs
B. Subtract Erythritol or Mannitol (If Present)
Note that if the sugar alcohols a food contains are erythritol or mannitol, you can subtract the entire amount of sugar alcohols from the total carbs. This is because these sugar alcohols don’t impact glucose levels in the same fashion as other sugar alcohols. If that same food with 40 grams of total carbs, 5 grams of fiber, and 8 grams of sugar alcohols (i.e., xylitol) also had 3 grams of erythritol or mannitol, this is how the math would look:
40 grams of total carbohydrates – 5 grams of dietary fiber – [8 grams sugar alcohols (xylitol)/2] – 3 grams of erythritol = 28 grams of net carbs
If the math above brings back memories you’d rather forget from your schooling days, we hear you! Rest assured, we have the solution you may just be looking for.
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†2G Net Carbs = 2G Total Carbs - 0G Fiber - 0G Sugar Alcohol
*Always consult your physician before starting an eating plan that involves regular consumption of high fat foods. See information for calorie, total fat and sat. fat content.References