Should Diabetics Monitor Net Carbs or Total Carbs?
Living with diabetes can be challenging. You must watch what you eat daily and count your carbs to ensure proper blood sugar levels. Nutrition labels help you see the number of carbs per serving, but some companies market the net carbs for their products to entice customers. What is the difference between net carbs and total carbs? How many net carbs should a diabetic eat? This article will walk you through the differences.
What Are Carbs?
First, think about what carbs are. Carbohydrates are a macronutrient — along with protein and fat — your body needs. A carb is a biomolecule that includes various foods, but there are different types you’ll see in the grocery store. You’ll find these sugar molecules in many beverages, fruits, sweets and more.
The primary distinction between carbs is simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates — also known as simple sugars — are carbs in their most basic form. Their chains of molecules are shorter and your body digests them faster. Some examples of simple carbs include candy, soda and syrup.
Conversely, you have complex carbohydrates — you may also know them as polysaccharides. Your body takes simple and complex carbohydrates and turns them into glucose, your body’s preferred energy source. Complex carbs are generally more nutritious and include foods like beans, whole grains, fruits and more.
Within complex carbohydrates, you have two primary groups — starches and fiber. You’ll see starches in potatoes, corn, bread, pasta and more. Fiber is another necessary complex carb, assisting digestion and lowering cholesterol and blood sugar. You get it from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and other foods.
Net Carbs Vs. Total Carbs
When your body converts carbohydrates into glucose, it needs insulin to break down the cells and help your body digest food. The number of carbs you eat impacts your dosage of insulin when necessary. So, what’s the difference between net carbs vs. total carbs?
On a nutrition label, total carbs refer to the entire amount of carbohydrates in one serving of the food item. Total carbs encompass measurements like total sugar, added sugar, sugar alcohols and dietary fiber.
Total sugar includes how much natural sugar is in the food, but added sugar refers to how much artificial sugar the production process adds. For example, you may see sucrose or dextrose in the food. Sugar alcohols are similar to added sugar, but they are naturally occurring. People use sugar alcohols as a low-calorie sweetener because they minimally affect your blood sugar. Dietary fiber is how much fiber the food has that your body can’t easily break down.
Some people on a low-carb diet use the term net carbs, referring to the number of carbs that significantly affect your blood sugar levels. You may also see phrases like digestible carbs or impact carbs. Calculating net carbs requires you to take the total number of carbohydrates and subtract the amount of fiber and sugar alcohols. Though their impact is minimal, you should still consider fiber and sugar alcohols because your body still digests them and raises your blood sugar.
How Does Your Diet Affect Blood Sugar?
Of the three macronutrients, carbs affect your blood sugar the most. If you eat high-carb foods, your blood sugar rises. Diabetics need insulin or other medication in response to high blood sugar. Those with Type 1 diabetes often require multiple insulin injections daily, especially if they see blood sugar spikes.
Sometimes, people try to lower their carbs daily to decrease the chances of a blood sugar spike. Adults with diabetes should average between 45 and 60 grams of carbs per meal and 15 to 20 grams if they eat a snack. Your doctor can give you a more accurate range depending on your age, activity levels and medicines. This measurement refers to the total carbohydrate level. Recently, some people have started to use net carbs for counting.
How Many Net Carbs Should a Diabetic Eat?
For diabetics and others with health conditions, living with a sense of independence is critical. You want to perform your daily tasks with minimal interference from any illness. Nowadays, people with diabetes have more freedom than ever because of remote patient monitoring. This method allows health care providers to monitor their diabetic patients at home, letting them take charge of their life.
One way diabetics increase their independence is by determining what foods they eat daily. You likely check the carb content of every box, jar and bottle you pick up at the grocery store. Total carbohydrates are a more reliable source of carb counting than net carbs. Fiber and sugar alcohol affect your blood sugar enough to where you should account for them to continue your independent lifestyle.
Net carbs aren’t the best way to track your daily diet. The term comes from the food industry and companies like Atkins rather than scientists. It’s vital to know the Food and Drug Administration has no regulation or definition for net carb, which is more of a marketing term than a health phrase. Companies want to sell food products to those watching their carbs by discounting the effect of fiber and sugar alcohols.
Net Carbs Vs. Total Carbs — A Distinction for Diabetics
You’ll see people talk about carbs differently in various advertisements and websites. Some advocate for a low-carb diet or emphasize diets like ketogenic. The different ideas can cause confusion and lead people with diabetes to ask questions like, “How many net carbs should a diabetic eat?”
In general, it’s best to stick with total carbohydrates. This measurement clarifies your carb intake and accounts for factors like fiber and sugar alcohol.
Beth is the Managing Editor and content manager at Body+Mind. She shares knowledge on a variety of topics related to nutrition, healthy living, and anything food-related. In her spare time, Beth enjoys trying out new fitness trends and recipes.
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