Calculate Net Carbs: Easy Step-By-Step

Find out how to calculate the amount of carbs you need to reach your wellness goals.

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by
Caroline Thomason
— Signos
Dietician + Diabetes Educator (CDCES)
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 12, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Carbohydrates play a significant role in our diets, serving as a primary energy source for our bodies. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. While some are beneficial, others can hinder progress toward weight loss and health goals. Understanding net carbs may have some health benefits if you want to manage your carbohydrate intake effectively.

Net carbs refer to the total carbohydrates in a food after the fiber and certain sugar alcohols are subtracted. These foods are not absorbed by the body and are fermented in the gut and excreted as waste. Thus, they do not contain absorbable calories like sugars or starches. Monitoring net carbs can help you make informed decisions about your food choices, especially if you’re following a low-carb diet, ketogenic diet, the Atkins diet, or managing conditions like diabetes.

Calculating net carbs is a simple step-by-step process that helps you track your total carb count accurately. Let us guide you through an easy step-by-step process to calculate net carbs effectively. Whether you aim to lose weight, control your blood sugar levels, or simply create healthy nutrition habits, understanding net carbs can be a tool in achieving your health goals. Read on to learn the simple method for calculating net carbs and take control of your net carbohydrate intake today.

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What Are Net Carbs?

The number of net carbs represents the carbohydrates in a food item that the body absorbs and converts into glucose, our primary source of energy. To calculate net carbs, you will subtract dietary fiber and certain sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate content of the food. Fiber is listed on the nutrition label underneath “Total Carbohydrate.” Sugar alcohols are also on the nutrition label under “Added Sugar.” However, you can also look at ingredient labels for sugar alcohols: sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and maltitol.

Unlike other carbohydrates, fiber and certain sugar alcohols are not fully digested and absorbed by the body, so they have a minimal impact on energy levels and blood sugars. By calculating net carbs, you can make more informed dietary choices, particularly if you’re following low-carb diets or managing conditions like diabetes, where blood sugar control is crucial.

Understanding net carbs might empower you to make strategic choices about your carbohydrate intake, tailoring your diet to specific health goals. Whether aiming to lose weight, stabilize blood sugar levels, or simply adopt a healthier lifestyle, focusing on net carbs could help you.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Related: </strong><a href="how-many-carbs-should-type-2-diabetic-eat-daily">Carb Counting: How Many Carbs Can a Diabetic Have Daily?</a>.</p>

Net Carbs vs. Total Carbs: Differences Explained

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Total carbs refer to the entire carbohydrate content present in a food item, including sugars, starches, fiber, and sugar alcohols. On the other hand, net carbs represent the portion of carbohydrates that the body digests and absorbs, excluding fiber and certain sugar alcohols that pass through the digestive system without being fully metabolized and absorbed.

While total carbs provide a total count of the carbohydrate content in a food, net carbs offer a more accurate reflection of the carbohydrates that affect blood sugar levels and our energy from food. By subtracting fiber and certain sugar alcohols from total carbs to calculate net carbs, you can make more informed dietary choices, particularly if managing conditions like diabetes or following low-carb diets. Understanding the difference between net and total carbs might help you prioritize foods that support your goals, promote stable blood sugar levels, and facilitate weight management more effectively.

Foods with lower net carb content — meaning they are likely higher in fiber and low in added sugars — tend to have less impact on blood sugar levels, leading to more stable energy levels throughout the day and potentially reducing the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Moreover, prioritizing foods with lower net carbs often means opting for whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds, and certain fruits, which provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants while promoting satiety and supporting weight management efforts.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="slow-digesting-carbs-and-blood-sugar-control">Slow-Digesting Carbs and Blood Sugar Control</a>.</p>

Counting Net Carbs: Pros and Cons

Counting net carbs offers advantages if you are managing blood sugar levels or want to support weight loss efforts. However, there are some challenges to counting net carbs, too. Understanding both the benefits and limitations of counting net carbs is essential for having a balanced approach to your nutrition plan.

Pros and cons may include but are not limited to:

Pros

  1. Increases Food Choices: If a healthcare professional or registered dietitian has advised you to limit your carbohydrates, counting net carbs allows you to have a broader range of food choices compared to counting total carbs. By subtracting fiber and certain sugar alcohols, you can include foods like non-starchy veggies, nuts, and seeds, which are rich in fiber and nutrients, in your diet without significantly impacting your net carb intake.
  2. Reduces Potential Hypoglycemia in Diabetes: For folks with diabetes who take insulin, counting net carbs can help prevent hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels. Since fiber and certain sugar alcohols minimally impact blood sugar levels, subtracting them from total carbs provides a more accurate representation of the carbohydrates that affect your blood glucose.
  3. Promotes Fiber Intake: Focusing on net carbs encourages you to consume more fiber-rich foods, which offer numerous health benefits such as improved digestion, weight management, and reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Cons

  1. Not Effective for Everyone: While counting net carbs can be beneficial for many people, it may only be suitable for some. Some people with diabetes may find that focusing solely on net carbs does not adequately control your blood sugar levels, necessitating a more comprehensive approach to blood sugar management that includes diet, exercise, stress, and medication management. Some folks may simply find tracking the amount of carbs they’re eating too stressful or cumbersome and prefer to focus on other strategies for their health.
  2. Variations in Food Labels Can Be Misleading: Nutrition labels may not always accurately reflect the amount of sugar alcohols in a product, leading to discrepancies in net carb calculations. This variability can make it challenging to determine foods' true net carb content.
  3. Higher Consumption of Sugar-Free Products: Relying solely on net carbs may lead you to consume more sugar-free or low-carb products, which often contain artificial sweeteners and other additives. While these products may be low in net carbs, over-reliance on them may not necessarily be the healthiest option and could contribute to other side effects like gastrointestinal distress, particularly depending on the total grams of sugar alcohol.
  4. Not Entirely Accurate: Calculating net carbs may not accurately represent how a particular food will affect an individual's health. Carbohydrate count is just one nutrition consideration when reading the ingredient list.

Who Should Calculate Net Carbs?

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Low-carb diets aren’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Carbohydrates offer fiber, vitamins, minerals, and many nutritious compounds that support our health. However, people living with type 2 diabetes, those following the keto diet, and those trying to increase fiber and reduce added sugar could benefit from calculating net carb intake. For folks with diabetes, monitoring total carbs, amount of fiber, and net carbs is crucial for controlling blood sugar levels and preventing both spikes and crashes that can lead to complications associated with diabetes.

Individuals following ketogenic diets rely on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat approach to induce a metabolic state called ketosis, where the body burns fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. 

Calculating net carbs is essential for staying within the strict carbohydrate limits of a ketogenic diet, which typically ranges from 20 to 50 grams of net carbs per day. By tracking net carbs, ketogenic dieters can ensure they remain in ketosis. The keto diet is not for everyone and is not necessary for managing blood sugar levels. Some people find it clinically useful for managing epilepsy, but most governing bodies agree it is not recommended for folks with diabetes.

For active folks who exercise often and intensely, calculating net carb intake helps ensure that you’re taking in enough carbohydrates to support performance, increase energy levels, and facilitate recovery. Intense physical activity can deplete glycogen stores, the body's primary source of carbohydrate energy. By monitoring net carbs, you can strategically consume carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and recover from your activity.

How to Figure Out Net Carbs: Step-By-Step

  1. Determine Total Carbs: Begin by identifying the total carbohydrate content listed on the nutrition label of the food item you are consuming. Total carbohydrates include all types of carbohydrates present in the food, including sugars, starches, fiber, and sugar alcohols.
  2. Subtract Dietary Fiber: Next, subtract the amount of dietary fiber from the total carbohydrate content. Fiber is a carbohydrate that the body cannot digest and absorb fully. Since fiber does not significantly impact blood sugar levels, it is subtracted from the total carbs to calculate net carbs.
  3. Subtract Sugar Alcohols: If the food contains sugar alcohols commonly used as sweeteners in sugar-free or low-carb products, you may also subtract them from the total carbohydrate content. Like fiber, sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body and have minimal impact on blood sugar levels for most people. However, it's essential to note that not all sugar alcohols have the same effect on blood sugar, so you may choose to subtract only half of the carbs from sugar alcohols to account for this.
  4. Calculate Net Carbs: Once you have subtracted the dietary fiber and, if applicable, sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate content, you are left with the net carbs. Net carbs represent the carbohydrates that significantly impact blood sugar levels and metabolic processes in the body. Monitoring net carbs can help you make informed dietary choices, particularly if you are following a low-carb diet, managing diabetes, or striving to achieve specific health and wellness goals.

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Choosing the right medication is essential for improving health, managing diabetes, and achieving weight loss goals. Signos’ experts offer invaluable advice tailored to individual needs, considering factors like medical history, lifestyle habits, and medication interactions. They help individuals select medications that effectively control blood sugar levels, minimize the risk of complications, and support weight loss efforts while addressing concerns about efficacy, safety, and long-term sustainability. By working closely with Signos’ experts, individuals can make informed decisions about their medication regimen, optimize their health outcomes, and achieve their diabetes management and weight loss goals more effectively.

Explore more about nutrition and adopt healthier habits by delving into Signos' blog, or discover if Signos' program is right for you through a brief quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="whole-carbs-vs-refined-carbs">Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs: Differences Explained</a>.</p>

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References

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About the author

Caroline Thomason is a dietitian, diabetes educator, and health writer based in Washington, DC.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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