Net carbs vs total carbs, which one should you track?
Please do me a favour!
Grab a packaged item from your pantry and look at the carbohydrate section.
Does it likely say total and net carbohydrate? I’m going to bet it does. If it doesn’t, look at a few other items, and I bet you’ll find one.
Is there a difference, and should you care?
There is a difference. Whether you should care or not is debatable.
The total carbohydrate value includes all the different types of carbs in a food or meal. These include starches, dietary fibre, and sugar alcohols. But here’s where it gets a little complicated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows food companies to subtract the calories found in some forms of dietary fibre and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate value even though sugar alcohols and fibre do contain calories. The FDA allows this deduction because some forms of fibre and all sugar alcohols don’t provide nutritional benefits to humans.
All in all, this subtraction leaves us with the net carbohydrates (aka the remaining carbohydrates after sugar alcohols, and fibre have been deducted)
Typical foods you will find this in are ‘low calorie’ ice cream and protein bars. These products are often low marketed to be calorie because they are legally allowed to deduct the fibre and sugar alcohols from a product. The problem is that just because some fibre and sugar alcohols don’t ‘provide nutritional benefit’, doesn’t mean they don’t contain calories. Yes, even sugar alcohols contain calories, but how many? That’s the tricky part to quantify because there are dozens of sugar alcohols available on the market, and they all have a different number of calories per gram.
So should you track total or net carbs?
As with everything, it depends. Tracking total carbs can be an added layer of complexity if you are learning to track, and on the other hand, it can be a relatively simple process for someone who has been tracking for an extended period. Again, I say, use your discretion. Suppose you are at the beginning of your health and fitness journey. In that case, the difference between total and net carbs is undoubtedly not on your list of priorities, and your time and energy will be best pushed toward consistency and overall adherence. But suppose you are a bikini competitor or a bodybuilding competitor. In that case, it might be a valuable strategy for you, considering you need to be a little more nuanced to achieve optimal results.
If you choose to track total carbs over net carbs, you will need to add the fibre and sugar alcohols to the listed value of carbohydrates, which gets a bit complex.
Because you will draw various amounts of calories from fibre depending on your metabolism and, according to research, your body weight. Some people are more efficient at absorbing calories from dietary fibre than others. Efficiency in this context means that you draw more calories from fibre. In addition, each sugar alcohol contains a specified amount of calories per gram. For example, sorbitol contains around 2.5 calories per gram, and maltitol contains approximately two calories per gram. I prefer to overestimate in these situations rather than underestimate, so the strategy I use is counting each gram of sugar alcohol as two calories and each gram of fibre as 3-4 calories.
The point is that you want to be consistent in your efforts and remember that you will never be 100% accurate when you are tracking—Consistency and adherence triumph over any nuance.
Yours in health,
Head of Nutrition