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The Complete Guide to Net Carbs

The Standard American Diet has been far too much sugar and refined carbohydrates; dietary aspects have been contributing to the climbing rate of illness and obesity in our society for quite some time. Carbohydrates have been a large part of that diet, but how do consumers know what products to choose if wanting to lead a healthier diet and gain more information about what types are carbohydrates are there?

For starters, they can start looking less at total carbohydrates, and more at “net” “active” or “digestible” carbohydrates instead. In order to fully understand this concept, it is important to first understand how carbohydrates are digested in the first place.

What Are Net Carbs?

Whenever a carbohydrate is consumed, there is a total amount that is absorbed in the body and a total amount that cannot be absorbed (like fiber and sugar alcohols). Net carbs are calculated by the difference between these two amounts of carbohydrates. Net carbs are also referred to as active or impact carbohydrates, that are utilized to show you how many carbohydrates you are actually digesting. Not every individual metabolizes carbohydrates in the same manner.

Studies show that your gut bacteria may play a role in carbohydrate metabolism. Gut bacteria are like a fingerprint – everyone’s is different. Another point of contention is that the calculation can become more complex with the addition of multiple fibers and sugar alcohols in a product.

Digestion And Absorption Process Of Carbohydrates And Fiber

The digestive route for all carbohydrates is relatively the same. As food continues through the digestive system, it is broken down further into glucose by the liver and stored in the form of glycogen in your muscles and cells. In special cases at this point, such as insulin resistance or diabetes, the body may send glucose back to the blood via the liver.

Body systems will then utilize this stored energy to achieve its everyday functions. These stored macronutrients are mainly used by the brain because without them, ketones, as achieved in the ketogenic diet, are the only alternative that work to fuel the brain.

Numerous structures and functions of carbohydrates control the daily work of the human body. Not all carbs are the same, and therefore, should not be treated as such. There are even carbohydrates that the human body cannot digest, for example, fiber.

Fiber, goes through the digestive process without any breakdown at all. Once in the colon, it either absorbs water and converts to short chain fatty acids (soluble fiber), or bulks up your stool (insoluble fiber). The bottom line; fiber is not digested like other forms of carbs, and thus, does not impact insulin or blood sugar levels. Similarly, sugar alcohol carbohydrates, are digested relatively untouched and without the need for insulin.

Differences with Carbohydrate Digestion

Fiber can safely be said to have no impact on insulin and blood sugar in the body. It is a non-digestible component of complex carbohydrates, lowering the total amount of carbohydrates digested. For example, a bean-based pasta has 20 grams of carbohydrates per serving and 12 grams of fiber. Since the fiber is not broken down, it is deducted from the 20 grams of carbohydrates. In theory, consumption of this product limits your carbs to only 8 grams.

Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are carbohydrates that are neither sugar nor alcohol, containing no ethanol (the primary component in traditional alcohol). They are found naturally in some foods, but the majority of them are now seen in low carb food products. They are only partially digested, but their glycemic index (the measure of impact to blood sugar and insulin) relies on the type. Sorbitol and xylitol for example have slighter higher GI’s than Erythritol which has a glycemic index of zero. To put this in perspective, the glycemic index of table sugar is about 65.

There are also concerns about sugar alcohols causing bloating and gas since they pass through the digestive system relatively untouched, only to get fermented in the large intestine. Erythritol remains the one sugar alcohol that studies find as the best tolerated due to its low molecular weight and minimal impact in the colon.

Some studies have examined the blood sugar impact of certain sugar alcohols as well. Thought the digestibility is not high by any means, it still could slightly impact the net carb calculation.

Why You Should You Use Net Carbs Calculations In A Low Carb Approach

You may have been told to follow a lower carbohydrate approach by your doctor or dietitian. This approach forces patients to be more intentional with their dietary choices. A net carb approach is not an exact science by any means, but at least it causes my patients to focus on fiber and avoid sugar. Just realize that the calculation in whole foods, an apple for example, will most likely be more exact than in a food product.

A net carb approach is gaining popularity and knowing how the calculation is made can provide you the insight and power you need to truly alter your diet.

About the Author

Elisa Itkowitz

Elisa Itkowitz, MS, RD is a recognized digital content developer for Telehealth, Telenutrition, and Nutrition Informatics platforms. She has pioneered ways to bring traditional RD counseling into the digital marketplace by developing and optimizing strategies and solutions for business growth and client retention. Much of Elisa’s work includes researching and designing strategies for optimal market adoption and user data engagement for digital nutrition platforms. Her successes have led her clients to joining Apple Store’s top health and fitness app. Elisa is passionate about helping her love of dietetics embrace the digital community and finding ways to optimize one's counseling skills by using innovative resources.

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