Food, Nutrition, Science
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The Difference Between Net Carbs and Total Carbs

One of the greatest benefits of a ketogenic diet is its simplicity. Yes, the diet might be considered by some as ‘strict’, but therein its simplicity – you learn what you can eat, and what you should avoid. There’s no calorie counting, no point scoring. The science is solid; if you restrict your carbohydrate intake, and increase your fat intake, you will lose weight.

But while you won’t be counting calories on a ketogenic diet – you should be counting carbs. If you’ve been following a low-carb, ketogenic diet for a while, or even if you’re completely new to the world of low-carb dieting, you may be starting to realise that there is a lot of negative attention placed on carbohydrates. On a ketogenic diet, carbs are regarded, by and large, as ‘the enemy’.

However, contrary to the overall demonization of this particular food group, it may surprise you to learn that not all carbs are bad. Where many low-carb dieters begin to get confused about carbs is when faced with the terms ‘net carbs’ and ‘total carbs’. Carbs are just carbs, right?


Explained very basically, there are two types of carbs – the aforementioned ‘net carbs’ and ‘total carbs’.

Net Carbs vs Total Carbs

Nutritional information labels on food products in America are somewhat misleading when it comes to counting the grams of carbohydrate in a product.

The carbs on standard food labels include dietary fiber within the carb count, giving an inaccurate estimation of the carbs that can actually be digested.

But the total carbohydrate number is not what’s important here – it’s the ‘net carbs’ that count.

Net carbs are the amount of carbohydrate, minus the dietary fiber count. If you are following a low-carb diet, then it’s the net carb number that you should be taking note of.  So remember:

Total Carbs – Dietary Fiber = Total Net Carbs

Not all carbs are created equally. While a product might seem ‘high carb’ or indeed ‘low carb’ – when you work out the amount of net carbs within that product the numbers could differ quite significantly with what is actually printed on the food label.  And it’s the net carb count that is important here – as this indicates the amount of carbohydrate that will have an effect on blood sugar levels.

A Word of Caution Regarding Carb Counting

The above method for calculating net carbs is a simple one. However, some experts argue that in order to arrive at a true net carb value, other factors must be taken into consideration, such as the number of sugar alcohols present in the food.

If you were to take sugar alcohols into account, then the formula for calculating net carbs would be as follows:

Total Carbs – Dietary Fiber – ½ g of Sugar Alcohols (if 5g or higher) = Total Net Carbs

Note that this formula does not need to be used if the only sugar alcohol listed is erythritol (a naturally derived sugar-substitute with virtually no calories).

It should also be noted that not all food manufacturers take sugar alcohols into account when labelling so called ‘Low Carb’ food products.

Such labels are misleading. Take a look at the following food label for a sugar free candy bar (courtesy of Live to eat)

net carbs- nutrition-label

The information seems confusing and misleading, right?

That’s because food manufacturers, particularly those wanting to capitalise on the ‘low carb trend’ do not have to be completely transparent in the way that they present the nutritional information about their products.

How to Avoid Hidden Carbs

There is actually no legal definition for what actually constitutes ‘net carbs’ – therefore the net carb count on food labels is not regulated by the FDA. As a result of this, calculations can vary from product to product.

Since the only carbohydrate information that is regulated by the FDA is that which is presented on the ‘Nutritional Facts’ section of the food label (the part which lists total carbohydrates, broken down into sugars and dietary fiber) then the surest way to calculate an accurate measurement of net carbs is to use the formula and do the calculations for yourself.

However, if you really want to remain on the safe side, and make sure that you really have got a handle on your carb intake, then a much better way of tracking your intake would be to avoid pre-packed, processed food all together.

Cooking your own, keto-friendly meals from scratch, ensuring you are getting your carbs from the right foods and trying ketogenic carb-cycling is a sure-fire way to stay on the right track, and to help you avoid any carb-related mishaps.




  1. Ora Alger says

    Thank you this is very helpful as a newbie the Keto life style this clears up for me total versus net carbs .


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