The ketogenic lifestyle is all about restricting carbohydrate intake. To achieve the state of ketosis, it is recommended that in most cases you should limit your net carbohydrate intake to approximately 50 grams a day.1
A big discussion in the keto lifestyle community is the concept of "total vs net carbs." The idea is based on the hypothesis that not all carbohydrate products are similar. Some carbohydrates cannot be digested by the body and therefore simply "do not count."
For people who are considering starting a ketogenic diet, navigating the concept of total and net carbohydrates can be quite confusing.
So what's the difference between these two things?
In short, when counting the net carbohydrates in your food, you’re only accounting for the carbohydrates that are considered digestible and can be utilized for energy. On the other hand, as the name suggests, total carbohydrates include all carbohydrates in a food item.
Traditionally the keto community was focused on restricting total carbohydrate intake, but now the trend is shifting towards limiting the net carbohydrate count instead. This way of counting allows you to be more precise about your carb counting while allowing you to eat a wider variety of foods.
So which metric should you pay most attention to? This guide will explore all the aspects of the net vs total carb debate.
At first glance, the concept of total vs net carbohydrates might seem confusing, but in reality, it's quite simple.
As described previously, total carbs include all the carbohydrates in your food including sugars, dietary fiber, starches, and sugar alcohols. You don’t stop to consider whether the body can utilize those carbohydrate components or not, you include all carbs that are present. It should be noted that the total carbs are the only carbohydrate value recognized by the FDA.2
However, many keto experts are increasingly debating the use of net vs total carbs, as more and more food manufacturers are labeling net carbohydrates on their items.
The proponents of the net carbohydrate theory claim that all carbs are not equal, and therefore should not be counted in the same way.
Based on the assumption that the body does not absorb or metabolize fiber or sugar alcohols2 , these two types of carbohydrates are subtracted from the total amount.
Thus, net carbohydrates only include digestible carbohydrates that are quickly utilized for energy production in the body. The idea is that these are the only carbohydrates that should be counted as they are the only ones that affect the body's metabolism in a meaningful way.
Despite the claims by some food manufacturers that net carbohydrates are the only carbohydrates worth considering, some experts are still skeptical.3 This is because certain carbohydrates that are regarded as "inactive" by the food manufacturers, such as sugar alcohols, might not be inert.
Packaged foods that are labeled “low-carb”, “keto,” or advertise a small number of “net carbs” often contain sugar alcohols (such as erythritol, isomalt, maltitol, sorbitol, or xylitol) instead of sugar in order to keep the number of net carbohydrates low.
The truth is there is still a lack of clarity about the effect of sugar alcohols on the body's sugar levels and metabolism. While sugar alcohols do not cause a significant spike in blood sugar levels, they are still absorbed to some extent. There is evidence to suggest that contrary to the claims made by the food manufacturers, sugar alcohols do affect the body's postprandial glucose levels.4
In some cases, fiber and sugar alcohols may be partially digested and can therefore still add calories and affect blood sugar2. This is especially relevant for people with diabetes who use insulin injections to regulate their blood sugar levels.5 If you have diabetes, it’s important to speak with your doctor about how to determine your insulin dosage based on carbohydrate amounts.
At PlanKetogenic, we recommend counting net carbs while eating whole foods instead of highly processed foods.
This way, you are encouraged to eat more keto foods that contain fiber, which is a very important nutrient that most people don’t eat enough of. By subtracting fiber from your carb count on keto, you are freeing up more of your daily “carb budget” so you can include more clean, healthy foods that contain carbohydrates but are full of nutrients your body needs (veggies, fruits, nuts, berries, legumes).
However, it’s important to be aware that packaged foods can take advantage of the idea of “net carbohydrates” by marketing their product as low-carb even though it is highly processed and therefore not as good for you as natural foods.
As you need to keep your carbohydrate intake below a certain limit while on a keto diet, it might be worthwhile to know the amount of net and total carbs in food items. This is because every gram of carbohydrate makes a difference.
You can calculate both the total carbs and net carbs value of your food by using simple manual net carb calculation formulas.
Curious about where these numbers come from?
In most countries, the total amount of carbs in a food item is calculated by the subtraction method. This means that all the other nutritional components are subtracted from the total value to find the total amount of carbs present in each food item.
Net carbohydrates can be calculated by subtracting inactive carbohydrates from the total carbs.
*Keep in mind that the way sugar alcohols affect the blood sugar levels in your body is not entirely known.
Want to simplify?
A good way to avoid the complicating issue of sugar alcohols is to eat whole foods and limit your intake of highly processed foods. This is always a good rule of thumb for healthy eating.
Before you start calculating the amount of total and net carbohydrates in your food, it might be a good idea to recap why carbohydrate restriction is considered a key factor in the ketogenic diet.
The primary aim of the ketogenic diet is to put your body in a state of "ketosis." During ketosis, the body primarily relies on energy obtained from fats, which may lead to rapid weight loss.6
To achieve ketosis, you need to limit your carbohydrate intake because the body has a preference for carb metabolism. Only in the absence of carbohydrates will the body shift towards fat metabolism.
The keto diet has proven weight loss effects. Besides the weight loss, the multiple health benefits of keto also require a state of consistent ketosis for a particular period.7 This can only be achieved by reducing your carb consumption.
So how many carbohydrates are you allowed to consume on a keto diet? The general recommendation is to limit your carb intake to less than 50 grams of net carbohydrates a day For most people, this will allow your body to enter into a state of "ketosis."
However, it's not a hard and fast rule as some people can stay in ketosis while consuming more carbohydrates. This is because the number of calories required differs among individuals depending on their height, gender, and lifestyle factors. You can use an online keto macros calculator to figure out how many calories and net carbs you should aim for.
If you're a relatively active person who works out regularly, you can consume some extra carbohydrates and still stay in ketosis. This would equally be true if you have a greater caloric requirement based on your height and metabolic rate. On the other, someone who is less physically active might need to restrict their carbohydrate intake to achieve a similar state of ketosis.
The quality of carbohydrates you consume is equally important in your fitness and wellness journey. It's better to avoid carbohydrate-rich but poor quality foods, especially the highly processed ones like pasta, soda, white rice, donuts, and packaged foods. Even if something is labeled as “low-carb” or “keto,” that does not make it healthy.
It is best to only consume high-quality carbohydrates, like those found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables. These foods are higher in fiber, lower in net carbs, and higher in micronutrients. They also keep you feeling fuller for longer and can help with weight loss.
The idea of keeping track of all of your daily carb intake can seem like hard work at the beginning.
However, you don't have to worry about complex calculations. Thanks to technology, keeping track of your net carb intake isn't too complicated.
One easy way to keep track of your carb intake on keto is to sign up for a keto meal plan. You get recipes for what to cook for each meal, and each recipe specifies the carb count and other macro information. So as long as you stick to the meal plan, you don’t have to do any tracking or calculations.
Otherwise, you can calculate them manually if you have the time. You can do this with the assistance of a fitness and nutrition tracking calculator to make life easier. You’ll also need a food scale to accurately calculate your serving size.
Strict tracking is a good idea at the beginning, although you can get flexible with your carb intake later on. After you’ve done keto for a while, you’ll usually remember the basic nutritional facts of a few of the staple food items that make up many of your preferred keto dishes.
The concept of net carbohydrates can be confusing as it is not an officially recognized label by the FDA. The calculations for the number of net carbs on a food item might vary depending on the manufacturer. This is further complicated by the fact that some manufacturers classify sugar alcohols as inert carbohydrates and therefore exclude them from the net carbohydrate count.
Therefore, it is important to be aware of the differences between the net and total carbs and the way they're calculated. It is always a good idea to read all the food labels carefully and make an informed decision on your food choices.
In short, it is better to rely on naturally-occurring low-carbohydrate fruits and vegetables for your keto meals.
1. McDonald TJW, Cervenka MC. Lessons learned from recent clinical trials of ketogenic diet therapies in adults. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Jul 11];22(6):418–24. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0000000000000596 ↑
3. Freeman, J., & Hayes, C. (2004). “Low-carbohydrate” food facts and fallacies. Diabetes Spectrum: A Publication of the American Diabetes Association, 17(3), 137–140. https://doi.org/10.2337/diaspect.17.3.137 ↑
4. American Diabetes Association. (2003). Evidence-based nutrition principles and recommendations for the treatment and prevention of diabetes and related complications. Diabetes Care, 26(suppl_1), s51–s61. https://doi.org/10.2337/diacare.26.2007.s51 ↑
6. Gershuni, V. M., Yan, S. L., & Medici, V. (2018). Nutritional ketosis for weight management and reversal of metabolic syndrome. Current Nutrition Reports, 7(3), 97–106. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-018-0235-0 ↑