In recent years, carb counting has become a major point of dietary emphasis. With many low-carb diets such as keto and Atkins becoming more commonplace, it’s crucial to account for carbohydrates properly.
The problem is, there’s an ongoing debate between whether carbs or “net carbs” should be counted as part of one’s macronutrient profile. While some groups argue total carb count is a more precise measurement, others disagree with this sentiment.
Not all carbohydrates have the same effect from a dietary perspective. While some are more digestible, others tend to pass through the body without being absorbed.
It’s important to understand the differences between carbs and net carbs so that you can determine which form of measurement is most conducive to your lifestyle and goals.
Let’s take a deeper look at various types of carbs and what roles they play within your body.
Let’s Define a Carbohydrate
Before we dive into net carbs, it helps to know what a carb actually is in the first place.
Carbohydrates are an umbrella term for molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. There are two main types of carbs found in the foods we eat—simple carbs and complex carbs.
Simple carbs are found mostly in sugary foods and contain only one or two sugar unit molecules which can affect how quickly the food is digested and absorbed. Some examples are fruits and foods containing table sugar, like soda or cookies.
Complex carbs are slower-digesting in nature and contain several sugar units linked together. They are often found in whole grains, starchy vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, carrots, and oats.
While simple and complex carbs can be used as an energy source or stored as fat.
If a person consumes more carbs than needed, the body will convert excess carbs to fat.
There are other types of carbs which are not readily digestible by the body.
Fiber is different from the other two forms of carbohydrates. While it is similar in molecular profile, it does not provide a direct form of energy—it passes through the body without being digested and absorbed into the bloodstream for energy. The main role of fiber is to feed friendly bacteria in the digestive system.
Sugar alcohols also fall under the carbohydrate umbrella. They are typically used as a form of sweetener and contain only half the amount of calories as traditional carbohydrates. They are added to food as a reduced calorie sweetener and as a bulking agent.
Although each of these are considered carbs, the body handles each of them differently. It’s these differences that allow us to think that not all carbs are created equal, and we shouldn’t look at them as all playing the same role without our body.
Net Carbs Explained
Net carbs refers to carbs that are absorbed and processed by the body.
Simple and complex carbs are found in foods we eat. They are broken down in the small intestine and later become used as a source of energy in the body.
Those other types of carbs, such as fibers and sugar alcohols, can’t be broken as easily.
Because our bodies don’t actually absorb these types of carbs (to use them for energy), many people subtract fibers and sugar alcohols from overall carbohydrate amount.
This is often where debate tends to arise.
While some count every single carb in their diet, others subtract fiber and sugar alcohols because the body does not retain these macronutrients in the same manner.
Why is Fiber Different?
Unlike other forms of carbohydrates, fiber is not directly used as a natural fuel source for the body. It passes directly into the colon and can’t be broken down by enzymes in the digestive tract. Because of this, less than half the total carbohydrates from dietary fiber are metabolized to glucose.1
Fiber is best known for its ability to relieve constipation, especially soluble fiber (hello fruit, oatmeal, avocados and broccoli!), but can also provide several other health benefits.
Fiber consumption may be linked to lowering the risk of developing serious diseases.
The FDA Daily Value for fiber (the daily recommended amount) is 25 grams per day based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Even within fiber, there are two main types—insoluble and soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and can help speed the passage of bowel movements thereby preventing constipation. It contains no calories, nor does it spike blood glucose or insulin levels, and isn’t broken down by the gut.4
Insoluble fiber helps keep bowel movements regular and helps maintain a healthy digestive system. It’s typically found in the stalks, skins, and seeds of foods such as whole grains, nuts, and veggies,
Common foods with insoluble fiber include:
Insoluble fiber is an important part of a healthy diet that can help support several bodily functions.