Counting carbs can be a complicated affair. When tracking your macros for weight loss, you may feel like you need a calculator handy just to make lunch or dinner. So if you’ve heard about net carbs—a type of carbohydrates some people suggest don’t “count” on a low-carb diet—they may seem like one more ball to juggle in your eating plan.
Still, paying attention to the net carbs in your foods can bring benefits for weight loss. In fact, by focusing on net carbs, you may end up consuming healthier, more fiber-rich foods that could promote weight loss and boost satiation. Sounds like a win-win, right?
Here’s what you need to know about net carbs and healthy weight loss.
What Are Net Carbs?
First of all, in case you’re wondering what this trending term actually means: Net carbs are the number of grams of carbs a food contains after you subtract its grams of fiber (and half of its sugar alcohols, if it contains any) from its total carb count.
Why add this math equation to your eating routine? It all comes down to the fascinating fact that the body doesn’t process all carbs in the same way. Whereas most carbohydrates get quickly broken down in the gut and used for energy, fiber and sugar alcohols are exceptions.
“Fiber generally resists digestion in the gut, meaning it will not provide calories or impact blood sugar in the same way that more easily digested carbohydrates do,” explains dietitian and diabetes expert Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., C.D.C.E.S., author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.
Sugar alcohols are a similar (but not quite identical) story, hence why they get partially subtracted from a food’s total carb count. You’ve probably noticed these added sweeteners in sugar-free candies, drinks, and snacks. (Not sure what a sugar alcohol is? You can spot them by names that end in “-ol,” as in erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol.) Like fiber, sugar alcohols aren’t completely digested—though some get absorbed in the gut more than others. So, rather than memorizing exactly what percentage of various alcohols your GI tract digests, carb-counting fanatics simply divide their number in half, then subtract that from the total carbs as an estimate.
Once you subtract these two exceptions from a food’s total carb count, you have a clearer sense of its true carb impact.
Net Carbs And Food Labels
Food manufacturers aren’t required to list net carbs on their nutrition labels, so don’t expect to see them when scoping out a product at the supermarket. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not officially recognize the term “net carbs.” The only categories of carbs the FDA requires on food labels are sugars, added sugars, and fiber. That said, some food producers elect to list net carbs on their packaging—especially if their product is geared towards a carb-savvy customer.
If a product doesn’t list net carbs, simply subtract all the grams of fiber and half the grams of sugar alcohols (if there are any) from the total grams of carbohydrates. Voila! Net carbs.
Net Carbs and Weight Loss
For most people, calculating net carbs revolves around their impact on weight loss, particularly for those on low-carb diets. Since the point of low-carb eating is (obviously) to keep carbs low, calculating net carbs helps you identify which carbs truly contribute to your daily total and which don’t.
A major perk of focusing on net carbs over total carbs: It may give low-carb eaters the opportunity to incorporate a larger variety of foods into their diet. Understanding that carbs aren’t all created equal encourages people to incorporate more wholesome foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, that are rich in all sorts of important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Someone focusing only on total carbs, though, might choose to skip these foods when eating low-carb. Reinstating foods formerly “banished” for being too high-carb might increase your overall satisfaction with a low-carb diet, helping you to stick with it long-term.
Also, fiber deserves a serious shout-out for the part it plays in a diet that supports healthy weight loss. “Fiber can help you to stay full longer, support gut health, and balance blood sugar levels—all of which can play a role in helping to promote a healthy body weight,” says Palinski-Wade. “Since fiber can help regulate appetite, choosing high fiber foods can often help to decrease hunger, as well.”
The Bottom Line on Net Carbs
Net carbs can be a helpful metric for weight loss, but some nutrition experts have cautioned that focusing on them too narrowly could be problematic. The reason? Looking solely at carbs (net or otherwise) might distract you from other important aspects of a food, like whether it’s loaded with calories, sodium, saturated fat, or harmful additives—or valuable nutrients, for that matter.
Read More: 7 Signs Low-Carb Isn’t Working for You
“I always recommend a balanced approach where you focus on what you need to eat more of,” says Palinski-Wade. “Are you getting enough fiber? Are your meals balanced with lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber? Focusing on this can help to provide a diet more balanced in nutrition, but also a plan that is much more satisfying.”
Finally, calculating net carbs may not be the right strategy for those living with diabetes. “If you have diabetes, talk to your healthcare team about net carbs, especially if you are on blood sugar lowering medication or insulin,” Palinski-Wade recommends. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes focus on total carbs and not net carbs, since it’s possible that different types of fiber and sugar alcohols could affect blood glucose and insulin therapy. Be sure to talk with your dietitian or physician about what approach is right for you.