If you’ve ever been on a diet, or tracked the foods you eat so that you can use that data to improve your health going forward, then you’re likely familiar with the three so-called “macronutrients”; protein, fat and carbohydrate. Tracking macronutrients (or “macros”) seems tricky at first, but once you figure out the system that works for you — whether it’s pen and paper, or an app like Cronometer — it’s actually pretty simple.
With lots of people “going Keto,” and the resurgence in popularity of the Atkins Diet, tracking carbs isn’t quite as simple as it once was. That’s because Keto and Atkins have you pay attention not just to the number of grams of carbohydrate you consume each day, but also your “net carbs.”
So what are net carbs?
The concept of net carbs (along with the related terms “active carbs” and “impact carbs”) is based on the idea that certain types of carbohydrates are more likely to have a significant impact on your blood sugar levels, and the fact that big swings in blood sugar levels can lead to a great number of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Carbohydrates in the form of sugars and starches can have a negative impact, while carbohydrates in the form of fiber and sugar alcohols are generally thought not be as detrimental.
Both total and net carbs are readily available on the the FDA-mandated Nutrition Facts label that’s on packaged foods. The label lists the grams of total carbohydrate in each serving, and includes the grams of dietary fiber and sugar alcohol (if there are any). A person tracking total carbohydrates would pay attention to the total carbs number, while someone tracking net carbs would subtract the number of fiber and sugar alcohol grams from total carbs.
For example, I came across a “Low Carb Double Fudge Brownie” that had 26 grams of total carbohydrates, including 8 grams of dietary fiber and 13 grams of sugar alcohols. A person tracking their net carbs would record that the brownie contained just 5 grams of net carbs (26 grams total carbs minus 8 grams fiber minus 13 grams of sugar alcohol).
So should you be focusing on net carbs or is total carbs better?
The answer to that question depends on your goals. If you’re someone who might truly benefit from the Keto approach (and I only recommend that to clients in specific, limited circumstances), then yes. But most of us are much better served by paying attention to the quality of the food we eat, the timing of our meals, and getting enough physical activity and exercise.
Whole foods like vegetables, fruits, eggs, grass-fed beef, certain types of fish and dairy products, nuts, healthy fats are good for you because they contain exactly what your body needs to get and stay healthy, regardless of their net carb counts.
It’s telling that most discussions of net carbs seem to occur in relation to pre-packaged snacks and meal-replacement shakes. But while there’s no denying the convenience that some of these products appear to provide, the truth of the matter is that with just a bit of effort and motivation you can develop new habits that enable you to eat real food rather than shakes and bars.
And let’s be honest, one of the reasons many of these low net carb snacks are so popular is that they’re artificially sweetened with sugar alcohols, which will only perpetuate your sweet tooth, and keep you hooked on those kinds of tastes and flavors. Do you really want to make it harder to rid yourself of the cravings for candy, cookies and the like? Trading in the daily candy bar for a low net carb snack bar is not the best path to real and lasting health.
If you’re interested in learning more about how tracking the food you eat can help you develop better eating habits, click [here] to learn more about my free three day food tracker worksheet.
Or if you’re ready to get started making even bigger and better changes to your life, feel free to schedule a free initial consultation.