Total carbs are the total carbohydrates in a food—made up of starches, dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohols—where net carbs are the total carbs subtracted by the indigestible carbs such as fiber and sugar alcohols.
People have transitioned to counting net carbs versus total carbs on carbohydrate restricted diets such as the Keto Diet, Atkins Diet, and AIP Diet. This allows them to eat a wider range of foods while still (in theory) maintaining a low-carb diet.
There is considerable debate on the value of using net carbs versus total carbs. Understanding the difference is growing in importance as more products and foods are promoting net carbs in place of total carbs.
Net Carbs Defined
The theory of net carbs is based on the idea that not all carbs are created equal—and thus, the different types should not be counted in the same way. Proponents of the net carb theory focus solely on net carb consumption.
Some carbohydrates, such as refined sugars and starches, are absorbed quickly and have a high glycemic index, causing blood sugar levels to rapidly rise. Excess simple carbohydrates are stored in the body as fat. Examples include white bread, rice, sweets, and potatoes.
Other carbohydrates, such as fiber and ingestible sugar alcohols, pass slowly through the digestive system and do not cause a spike in the blood sugar levels. Examples include the carbohydrates in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as sugar alcohols such as xylitol.
What are Non-Active Carbs?
Non-Active Carbs (also known as Non-Impact Carbs or Indigestible Carbs) are not metabolized or broken down into sugar in the bloodstream.
These types of carbs include fiber and sugar alcohols.
What are Active Carbs?
Active Carbs (also known as Impact Carbs or Digestible Carbs) are carbs that the body does digest. These carbs have a higher glycemic index and cause increases in blood sugar.
These types include sugars and starches.
What are Total Carbs?
The total carb count on a nutrition label. This includes all the different types of carbs in a food or meal—starches, dietary fiber, and sugars.
This is the only recognized carb value by the FDA.
What are Net Carbs?
Only carbs that are digestible or have an impact on blood sugar. Calculated by subtracting total carbs by non-impact carbs.
Net Carbs Versus Total Carbs
The following table provides a high-level summary of total carbs vs net carbs.
Digestible Carbs + Indigestible Carbs
Digestible Carbs - Indigestible Carbs
Starches, Sugar, Fiber, Sugar Alcohols
Raspberry (1 cup) - 15g Total Carb
Protein Bar (1 bar) - 21g Total Carb
Whole Grain Bread (1 piece) - 14g Total Carb
Raspberry (1 cup) - 7g Net Carb
Protein Bar (1 bar) - 3g Total Carb
Whole Grain Bread (1 piece) - 12g Net Carb
How to Calculate Net Carbs
Net carbs are total number of carbs minus non-active carbs.
In non-processed, whole foods the formula is: Net Carbs = Total Carbs - Fiber
For example, one (1) cup of raspberries contains 7 grams of net carbs through 15 grams total carbs minus 8 grams of fiber.
In processed, packaged foods the formula is: Net Carbs = Total Carbs - Fiber - Sugar Alcohols
For example, a popular protein bar contains 4 grams of net carbs through 21 grams total carbs minus 14 grams of fiber minus 3g sugar alcohols.
Read our advanced guide on How to Calculate Net Carbs.
Origin of Net Carbs
It’s important to note that the concept of net carbs is not an officially recognized value.
Total carbohydrate count, broken down into dietary fiber and sugar, is the only carbohydrate value regulated by the FDA.
In an effort to capitalize on the low-carb movement, food manufacturers have invented this new category of carbohydrates — e.g. net carbs, active carbs, and impact carbs — as a way of promoting products that contain higher total carb counts as low-carb diet friendly options.
The promise to low-carb dieters is a more expansive range of food options including sweet, dessert-type snacks and foods without the consequences. Sugar alcohols—mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and other polyols— are the most common indigestible carbohydrates that add sweetness. These are modified alcohol molecules that mimic the sweetness of regular sugar. They taste sweet but have a slightly different molecular structure.
The effect of sugar alcohols on blood sugar levels and the body is not fully known and may cause some problems. Some sugar alcohols can raise your blood sugar (1).
Drawbacks of Focusing on Just Net Carbs
The concept of net carbs is the source of much debate in the world of nutritionists and dietitians (2).
Focusing on only net carbs isn’t the most accurate measure of carb intake. Each individual metabolizes non-active carbs such as fiber in a different way.
Moreover, there’s no agreement on the value of sugar alcohol. Some people recommend subtracting half the amount of sugar alcohol from the total carbs, while others recommend subtracting the entire amount.
This can be further complicated by the addition of artificial ingredients and sweeteners, such as fiber-rich inulin, which impacts each body differently.
Most importantly, and what this article aims to address, is that net carbs can be confusing for most people. It’s easy to take the promise of food manufacturers at face level and accept that Net Carbs are the same as Total Carbs. Something that is clearly not true.
Additionally, some folks might think that tracking net carbs allows them to ignore total calories and the quality of food they are consuming, factors that are also critical to healthy eating.
This can be counterproductive for someone on a low carb diet, or worse, harmful to someone on diabetes.
Net carbs are not necessarily a bad thing as it does encourage eating foods with more fiber which has been shown to have positive effects on the body.
Carbs In General
Many modern diets are built on the premise that eating less carbs has many health benefits. There are scientific studies that indicate that low-carb diets have value and can be healthy and beneficial.
Here is a list of proven health benefits of low-carb and ketogenic diets (3).
- Low-carb diets that have a daily carb limit can reduce your appetite. Studies show that when people eat less carbs and more protein and fat, they end up feeling fuller longer and eat less total calories.
- Low-carb diets can lead to rapid weight loss in the beginning. When compared to low-fat diets, low-carb diets show a quicker rate of weight loss.
- Low-carb diets and ketogenic diets can also help people with diabetes or insulin resistance. Carbs impact insulin levels differently and a reduction in carbohydrate intake can aid in diabetes management.
The concept of net carbs can be misleading and confusing for most people. That’s why understanding the differences between net carbs and total carbs is important to achieving your health and diet goals. Keep in mind, there's no official definition of net carbs.
It's always important to closely read the food label and ingredients list of all processed foods. This guide will give you the tools to make decisions for yourself, but you still need to be active in your healthy lifestyle.
Most dietitians recommend focusing on total carb intake rather than net carbs as the true measure. The best bet? Eating low-carb whole foods such as non-starchy veggies, leafy greens, high-fiber fruits, healthy fats such as olive oil, and quality meats and fish. This is the most proven way to lose weight and live a healthy life.
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