Let’s talk about carbs, baby! We know that not all carbs are created equal. We’ve got simple/refined carbs, we’ve got complex carbs, and … we have net carbs.
You may have heard them called “digestible carbs.” This refers to a portion of the carbs you consume that is actually absorbed by your body.
Simple carbs contain a single sugar unit, or at most two sugar units, and are found in foods like fruit, milk, sugar, and honey. Complex carbs contain several sugar units linked together and are found in grains and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes.
When you eat a food that contains carbohydrates, most of the carbs are broken down into single sugar units. The small intestine does this because only single sugar units can be absorbed easily by the body for fuel. Of note, this is part of the reason why simple carbs spike your blood sugar so quickly!
However, some carbs can’t be broken down into individual sugar units, leading them to be only partially absorbed. This process includes carb sources which contain fiber. This is why complex carbs, (and eating fiber alongside your carbs), slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream – it takes the body longer to break the sugar down.
Because of this, if you subtract the fiber content from the overall carbohydrate content, you can find the amount of carbohydrates that will actually be absorbed by the body.
There are two main kinds of fiber; soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water while insoluble fiber doesn’t.
Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance when it is dissolved in water. It reduces blood cholesterol and controls glucose levels. Soluble fiber can be found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyillium.
Insoluble fiber helps move material through your digestive track. This makes it great for relieving constipation. To get more insoluble fiber, increase your intake of whole grains, nuts, beans and vegetables like cauliflower, green beans and potatoes.
Whole foods like vegetables and fruits contain natural fiber. This means you can simply subtract the amount of fiber from the amount of total carbohydrates and find the net carbs. Since whole, fresh foods don’t usually come with nutritional labels, you can use resources like the USDA Food Composition Database to find nutrition information on nearly any food.
What about packaged foods? They have handy nutritional labels! Just look at the label and perform your subtraction from there.
Look closely at foods advertised as “low in net carbs.” Some are accurately represented, but be sure to check nutrition labels carefully. These products can contain more preservatives, unhealthy trans fats, even more sugar (believe it or not) than traditional products.
Many people can benefit from counting net carbs, especially if you’re on a low-carb or keto diet. Such diets usually allow 20-50 net carbs a day. They generally manage blood sugar levels well and can also result in losing excess body fat. But you should always test your blood sugar and NEVER change your diet, medication dosage or frequency without consulting your physician.
An advantage of counting net carbs is that it may increase the number of foods you are “allowed” to have. However, don’t let the fact that a food is low in net carbs be your invitation to eat as much of it as you like.
The Glycemic Index can be helpful in learning how foods may interact with your body and blood sugar. A diet balanced with protein, healthy fats, and fiber must still reign supreme for overall health and lower blood sugar.