Net Carbs: Definition, Benefits, and How To Calculate

Net carbs are essentially the carbohydrates that your body can digest and turn into sugar, impacting your blood sugar levels. They are calculated by taking the total carbohydrates in a food item and subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols, as these generally don’t affect your blood sugar. A study by Zach Lilla and colleagues, published in the Journal of AOAC INTERNATIONAL in 2005, developed a method using high-performance anion exchange chromatography to determine “net carbohydrates” with high specificity, precision, and accuracy.

In the context of low-carbohydrate diets like the Atkins Diet or Ketogenic diet, understanding net carbs is important for managing blood sugar and promoting weight loss. However, a narrative review by Nitya Kalyani Kumar and the team from Duke University and Ohio State University, published in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity in 2022, pointed out that there’s no consensus on whether to count total carbs or net carbs, making it a subject of ongoing debate.

This lack of standardization can pose challenges to dietary adherence and effectiveness, especially for people with diabetes. So, if you’re considering a low-carb or ketogenic diet, understanding net carbs can be a useful tool, but it’s essential to consult healthcare professionals for personalized advice. is a reader-supported platform. Purchases made through our links may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you.

What are Net carbs?

Net carbs are the carbohydrates that your body can digest and use for energy. The term “net carbs” refers to the amount of carbohydrates that are absorbed by the body, which impacts blood sugar levels. It’s the total carbs minus the fiber and sugar alcohols in a food item.

Focusing on net carbs helps individuals manage their blood sugar levels more effectively. This is especially important for those with or at risk for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM), as indicated by Dr. Kumar’s study. The research shows that a low-net-carb diet can lead to decreases in hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a marker for long-term blood sugar levels. Reducing net carbs can lead to weight loss by promoting fat burning and reducing insulin levels, as supported by studies on low-carb diets for metabolic health.

low carb diet plans

Common mistakes people make when calculating net carbs include not subtracting fiber or sugar alcohols, or misunderstanding which types of carbs are counted as net carbs. This can lead to inaccurate blood sugar management, which the studies indicate is crucial for metabolic health.

How do net carbs differ from total carbs?

Net carbs are the total carbohydrates in a food minus the fiber and certain sugar alcohols, while total carbs include all types of carbs. Net carbs are what’s left to impact your blood sugar. Net carbs are more rapidly absorbed and directly impact blood sugar, whereas total carbs include fiber, which has a slower, less direct effect on blood sugar levels.

Tracking net carbs can help with quicker weight loss and blood sugar control, but focusing solely on net carbs can lead to nutrient deficiencies if not balanced well. Net carbs are more likely to cause insulin spikes, which can affect fat storage, while total carbs include fiber that can promote satiety and potentially aid in weight loss.

Food labels usually list total carbohydrates and then break them down into fiber, sugars, and sometimes sugar alcohols; you subtract fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs to get net carbs. Whether net carbs are more important than total carbs depends on your health goals.

How do you calculate net carbs in foods?

To calculate net carbs, you take the total carbohydrates in a food and subtract the fiber and sugar alcohols.

The formula is: Net Carbs = Total Carbs - Fiber - Sugar Alcohols. 
This is a standard approach, especially in the U.S.

How do you calculate net carbs for packaged foods?

To calculate net carbs for packaged foods, subtract the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrates listed on the nutrition label. To calculate net carbs for foods with multiple servings, first, determine the net carbs per serving and then multiply by the number of servings you consume. The essential info on the nutrition label for calculating net carbs are the total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and sugar alcohols if present.

In terms of accuracy, the net carb counts on food labels can be fairly accurate, but they may not account for individual variations in how fiber and sugar alcohols affect you. If you’re diabetic, you’ll still subtract fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs, but be extra cautious with sugar alcohols as they can affect blood sugar. Apps like MyFitnessPal and Carb Manager can help you calculate net carbs for packaged foods by scanning the barcode or manually entering the info.

What are the health benefits of counting net carbs?

Counting net carbs can help you manage blood sugar, promote weight loss, and achieve overall better health. Here are 5 benefits:

  1. Better Blood Sugar Control: Focusing on net carbs can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which is crucial for people with diabetes.
  2. Increased Fiber Intake: Since fiber is subtracted from total carbs, you’re encouraged to eat more fiber-rich foods, which have various health benefits.
  3. Reduced Caloric Absorption: Some fibers are fermented in the gut, reducing the number of calories absorbed by the body.
  4. Lower Risk of Hypoglycemia: For those on insulin, counting net carbs can reduce the risk of low blood sugar levels.
  5. More Food Choices: Counting net carbs instead of total carbs allows for a greater variety of foods in your diet, making it more sustainable.

What are the health risks of counting net carbs?

Counting net carbs can potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies and an imbalanced diet if not done carefully.

  1. Nutrient Deficiency: Focusing solely on net carbs can make you overlook other essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
  2. High Saturated Fat Intake: Some low net-carb foods are high in saturated fats, which can raise cholesterol levels.
  3. Gastrointestinal Issues: A low-carb diet might lack fiber, leading to constipation or other digestive issues.
  4. Risk of Ketosis: Extremely low net carb intake can lead to ketosis, which, while beneficial for some, can be dangerous for others.
  5. Unsustainable Long-Term: Strictly counting net carbs can be hard to maintain long-term, leading to potential weight regain or yo-yo dieting.

What impact do net carbs have on weight loss?

Reducing net carbs can lead to a state of ketosis, where your body burns fat for fuel, aiding in weight loss. This metabolic state can accelerate fat loss but should be managed carefully to avoid potential side effects. Net carbohydrates also impact blood glucose, and focusing on them can help you manage calorie intake more effectively. Lowering net carbohydrates can reduce overall calorie consumption, making it easier to achieve a calorie deficit for weight loss.

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Tracking net carbs can help you maintain a calorie deficit and reach a state of ketosis more efficiently. The best low-net-carb foods for weight loss are leafy greens, lean meats, and healthy fats like avocado. These foods are not only low in net carbs but also rich in essential nutrients, making them ideal for weight loss.

What foods are surprisingly high in net carbs?

Foods like “healthy” cereals, granola bars, smoothies, corn, peas, potatoes, tropical fruits, dried fruits, pretzels, popcorn, protein bars, processed foods, ketchup, BBQ sauce, some salad dressings, plant-based milk, low-fat products, and certain yogurts can be surprisingly high in net carbs.

  1. Cereals and granola bars
  2. Smoothies with sugary fruits and additives
  3. Corn and peas
  4. Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  5. Tropical fruits like mangoes and bananas
  6. Dried fruits like raisins and dates
  7. Pretzels and popcorn
  8. Some protein bars
  9. Processed foods like white bread and pastries
  10. Ketchup and BBQ sauce
  11. Some salad dressings
  12. Plant-based milks like oat milk
  13. Low-fat products
  14. Certain types of yogurt

Are there any foods with zero net carbs?

Yes, foods like meat, fish, and most oils typically have zero net carbs because they contain no carbohydrates or fiber.

How many net carbs are commonly found in foods?

Here’s a quick rundown of the net carb content in some common fruits and veggies, so you can make informed choices for your low-carb lifestyle.

  • Avocado: A medium-sized avocado has about 3 grams of net carbs. It’s a low-carb fruit rich in healthy fats.
  • Banana: A medium-sized banana contains around 24 grams of net carbs. It’s a high-carb fruit best consumed in moderation on low-carb diets.
  • Blueberries: A cup of blueberries has approximately 18 grams of net carbs. They’re relatively high in carbs compared to other berries.
  • Broccoli: One cup of chopped broccoli contains about 6 grams of net carbs. It’s a low-carb, nutrient-dense vegetable.
  • Apple: A medium-sized apple has around 21 grams of net carbs. It’s a moderate-carb fruit that provides fiber and vitamins.
  • Strawberries: One cup of sliced strawberries has about 9 grams of net carbs. They’re one of the lower-carb fruits you can enjoy.
  • Sweet Potato: A medium-sized sweet potato contains around 20 grams of net carbs. It’s higher in carbs but also rich in nutrients.
  • Carrots: One medium-sized carrot has about 4 grams of net carbs. It’s a moderately low-carb vegetable that’s rich in vitamins.
  • Tomatoes: A medium-sized tomato has around 3 grams of net carbs. It’s a low-carb option that’s also rich in antioxidants.

How do net carbs fit into a balanced diet?

Net carbs can be part of a balanced diet when they come from nutrient-dense sources like vegetables and whole grains. They should be balanced with protein, healthy fats, and fiber to ensure overall nutritional adequacy. For athletes, net carbs are crucial for quick energy and recovery, especially when timed around workouts. However, they should be part of a broader nutrition plan that includes protein for muscle repair and healthy fats for long-term energy.

The percentage of net carbs in a balanced diet can vary, but generally, 45-65% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, focusing on net carbs can help you choose more nutrient-dense options. For your meal planning, aim to include net carbs from whole, unprocessed sources like fruits and veggies, and pair them with protein and healthy fats. In a vegetarian or vegan diet, net carbs can come from plant-based sources like legumes, fruits, and whole grains.

How does the Atkins diet emphasize net carbs?

The Atkins diet places a strong emphasis on counting net carbs to enter and maintain a state of ketosis for weight loss. It differentiates between “good” and “bad” carbs, focusing on carbs that have a minimal impact on blood sugar.

The Atkins diet starts with an induction phase that limits you to an average of 20 grams of net carbs per day. This amount gradually increases in later phases to find your carb balance. You calculate net carbs the same way as I’ve explained earlier, which is by subtracting fiber and certain sugar alcohols like erythritol from the total carbohydrates in a food item.

What is the recommended net carb intake for Phase 1 of the Atkins diet?

In the Atkins Phase 1, also known as the Induction phase, the recommended daily net carb intake is specifically set at an average of 20 grams. The range is no less than 18 grams and no more than 22 grams to ensure effective fat burning. This phase serves as the kickstarter for your weight loss journey, shifting your body’s primary energy source from carbs to fats.

What is the role of net carbs in the keto diet?

In the keto diet, net carbs are essential for maintaining ketosis, but the recommended amount differs from the Atkins diet. On a standard keto diet, you’re generally limited to 20-50 grams of net carbs per day. People frequently miscalculate net carbs by failing to subtract fiber and sugar alcohols. Additionally, consuming “keto-friendly” processed foods can still knock them out of ketosis.