By Dr. Mercola
When people sit down to enjoy a meal or snack, most have no idea what vitamins, minerals or other nutritional aspects the food contains, or the amounts. Often, when such individuals resolve to lose or maintain their weight, they read ingredient labels to see if they can figure out how they’re doing.
The Atkins Diet, designed to limit sugar and carb intake for this purpose, says to figure the net carbs, start with the grams of carbohydrates listed on food labels, subtract the dietary fiber, then subtract the sugar alcohol if applicable. That’s backed up by Mother Nature Network, but goes further:
“Net carbs is a calculation representing mostly just the starches and sugars in a food after some fiber and sugar alcohol contents have been subtracted. Some types of carbohydrates do not affect blood sugar in the body as much as others, so the thought is that net carbs only account for carbs that affect blood sugar.”1
Mother Nature Network maintains that the key to calculating net carbs is to figure out how much of an impact fiber has on blood glucose. Here’s how they say you can calculate net carbs:
“First subtract all of the insoluble fiber (if listed) from the total carbs and total fiber. If more than 5 grams of total fiber remain, you can also subtract half of the remaining fiber from total carbs. Then look at the sugar alcohols. If there are more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract half that amount from the total carbohydrates. If erythritol is the only sugar alcohol listed, you may not subtract any sugar alcohols.”2
‘It’s a Numbers Game’
Registered dietitian and “Clean Eating for Busy Families” author Michelle Dudash says food manufacturers coined the term “net carbs” when the low-carb craze became a thing in the 2000s. One reason it did, she says, was because dieters could basically eat as much sweet and salty foods as they wanted without worrying.
But another reason people are intrigued by a low-carb diet is because it allows them to eat more; the lower the total carb count is, the higher your chances of staying under the amount you should eat per day. “It’s a numbers game,” she said, adding:
“There is no legal definition for net carbs; therefore it’s not regulated by the FDA on food labels and calculations can vary by each manufacturer … The problem is that going on a low-carb diet typically includes cutting out food groups like grains, fruit and some vegetables, so important nutrients can be overlooked.”3
In fact, only carb information that can be broken down into dietary fiber and sugars is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Atkins site notes:
“The Net Carbs number reflects the grams of carbohydrate that significantly impact your blood sugar level and therefore are the only carbs you need to count when you do Atkins. Foods that are low in Net Carbs such as nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits don’t have a significant impact on blood sugar and therefore are less likely to interfere with weight loss.”4
Low Net Carbs — Not Low Total Carbs
Net carbs are defined as total carbs minus fiber. Keep in mind that when seeking to limit your net carbs, this is not the same as eating a low total carb diet — it is a low net carb diet. Seeking to limit carbs from fiber would be counterproductive, as your body requires large amounts of fiber carbs for two primary reasons.
First, fiber is used as a prebiotic for your beneficial bacteria and, second, most of the fiber is converted to short chain fats that can be used as fuel for your cells in place of sugar. Most people are burning carbs as their primary fuel.
The problem with this is that carbs do not burn as cleanly as fat and produce 30 percent to 40 percent more free radicals than fat. These free radicals damage important cellular structures, such as your mitochondrial DNA, cell membranes and proteins like the mitochondrial electron transport chain.
The goal of counting your net carbs is so you can eventually radically limit your intake to under 40 to 50 grams of net carbs per day and replace them with healthy fats, as this will transition your body into primarily burning fat for fuel and radically reduce your risk for most chronic diseases.
The Best Way to Track Your Nutrition, Fitness and Health Data
It’s important to understand how to burn fat for fuel. In fact, you may need an “educational intervention” of sorts to understand how foods, specifically carbohydrates, impact your body.
A lot of information is required to learn what foods are best to eat (and what to avoid), and how much to get the most “bang for your buck,” in the weight loss department, but still provide the nutrition needed for optimal results. How do you eliminate the guesswork and calculate your net carbs with accuracy?
If you’re making the commitment to burn fat for fuel, an online nutrient tracker is the easiest, most efficient way to determine your net carb intake. In lieu of all the math required for the net carb calculations noted above, a food tracker makes it so much easier, and Cronometer is one of the best.
As a “premium web application for tracking your nutrition and health data,” Cronometer takes the mystery out of how to get the most nutrition from a reduced-calorie or low-net-carb diet. Cronometer can provide you with a quick overview of your diet over time, factoring in your weight and daily calorie intake, for example, and even macronutrient ratios. But amazingly, this device also tracks more than 40 micronutrients, with a focus on nutrition analysis.
If you want complete accuracy, rest assured that Cronometer uses data from two of the most reliable databases available: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Nutrition Coordinating Center's (NCC) Food and Nutrient Database. Professionally analyzed and validated, both are heavily relied on by the scientific community.
In fact, it can tell you how much fat, protein and carbohydrates you’ve consumed, the grams and percentages of your total calories, as well as ratios for omega-6 to omega-3, zinc-to-copper and potassium-to-sodium.
Cronometer Benefits for Nutrition, Balance and Health
Another valuable benefit of using the Cronometer system is that you can preplan your meals and enter the information before you actually eat. My Nutrition Plan contains all the information you need to get healthy. At the same time you’re looking at your carb intake, it’s equally important to look at the other basics for nutritional health, such as protein, fiber and healthy fats. Cronometer.com explains:
“Calorie-reduced diets require a lot of information to perform optimally. In order to restrict caloric intake, but remain healthy, users of the diet must track their vitamin, mineral and protein intakes with great care.”5
Additionally, the site offers discussion forums and a blog that cover a wide range of topics regarding your health journey, from the ketogenic diet to the importance of vitamin D to new applications.
The Cronometer mobile app is available for iOS and Android and offers easy-to-use touch screen optimization so that even when you’re out and about, its streamlined data entry site is readily accessible. It’s important to understand that it’s not something you’ll have to do daily for the rest of your life; it’s just a short-term intervention.
Net Carbs, Fiber and How They Impact Your Blood Sugar
Net carb declarations on some packaged foods may not reflect the number of carbs you actually absorb. Additionally, every human body processes nutrients, including carbs, slightly differently. Other terms for “net carbs” are digestible or impact carbs, which your body can absorb, whether they’re simple or complex. As Authority Nutrition observes:
“Simple carbs contain one or two sugar units linked together and are found in foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, sugar, honey and syrup. Complex carbs contain many sugar units linked together and are found in grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes. When you eat a carb-containing food, most of the carbs are broken down into individual sugar units by enzymes produced in your small intestine. Your body can only absorb individual sugar units.”6
But while some carbs can’t be broken down into individual sugars, others, such as fiber and sugar alcohols, are only partially broken down and absorbed. Therefore, most fiber and sugar alcohols are subtracted to calculate net carbs.
When it comes to types of fiber, soluble or insoluble, the latter is bulkier and can help prevent constipation. Further, it has no impact on your caloric intake, blood sugar or insulin levels.7 But soluble fiber dissolves and forms a gel-like substance that helps food move smoothly through your system, making you feel full.8
Soluble fibers are fermented by bacteria into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Food containing 6 grams of fiber contributes around 4 calories from SCFAs, but not only doesn’t increase blood glucose, but may even help reduce blood sugar levels.9
Sugar Alcohol and How Your Body Reacts to It
What are sugar alcohols? Authority Nutrition describes them as sugar alternatives, but with the ethanol their name implies. They’re hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules, and aside from all the chemically-concocted types, several can be found in fruits and vegetables.
But xylitol (which is highly toxic to dogs10), erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol and numerous others are very controversial. Sorbitol, for instance, is cited by Authority Nutrition as possibly causing “significant digestive distress.”
“If you eat a lot of sugar alcohols in a short period of time, this can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a sensitivity to FODMAPs, then you may want to consider avoiding sugar alcohols completely. Sorbitol and maltitol appear to be the biggest offenders, while erythritol causes the least symptoms.”11
FODMAP, which stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols, are short-chain carbohydrates that some people find difficult to digest. It’s very common in individuals who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).12 Erythritol, Authority Nutrition states, seems to be the winner in the alternative sweetener category, although xylitol is also one of the better options. However, using natural substances, such as pure stevia, is always best.
Increasing Your Healthy Fats and Limiting Net Carbs Is Imperative for Optimal Health
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not just limiting your net carb intake that’s important for improving your metabolic health. It’s also important to increase your healthy fat intake. In fact, the type of fuel you burn makes all the difference in your quest to lose or maintain your weight, as the Atkins site explains:
“A typical diet reduces calories, but is still high in carbohydrates (and thus sugar). As a result, many people constantly cycle between sugar ‘highs’ (where excess sugar is actually stored as fat in the body) and sugar ‘lows’ (where you feel fatigued and ravenously hungry — for more carbs and sugar). For many, it’s really hard to lose weight that way.”13
Accurately tracking your net carbs and determining and maintaining your body’s crucial balance for its best function is extremely important. A tracker like Cronometer may be the key you need for optimizing your nutrition so you feel good and look good, and are not always wondering what you’re missing.
Good Health Starts by Counting Net Carbs
To sum up, virtually all disease, including obesity, is rooted in metabolic mitochondrial dysfunction, so this is the foundational aspect that must be addressed. Improving your mitochondrial function through diet involves radically reducing the net carbs in your diet and replacing them with high-quality fats.
The reason why it's so important to limit your net carbs is because high-sugar foods will cause your blood sugar to rise, and glucose is an inherently "dirty" fuel that generates large amounts of free radicals — far more than fat does when burned. The crux of the problem is that in order to be able to burn fat for fuel, your cells must be healthy and normal.
Cancer cells, for example, do not have this type of metabolic flexibility. They primarily burn glucose anaerobically (without oxygen) to survive. This is likely a primary factor why a healthy high-fat diet appears to be such an effective cancer prevention strategy.
Ultimately, when you switch from burning glucose as your primary fuel to burning fat as your primary fuel, your cells are more effectively and efficiently nourished and supported while cancer cells are frequently starved to death. As your body becomes increasingly efficient at burning fat for fuel, oxidative damage is reduced and mitochondrial function is optimized. This is the key to good health, disease treatment and prevention and longevity.