There is much debate over net carbs and total carbs when it comes to the ketogenic diet, so let’s dig into the science behind why you should track net carbs and when you should track total carbs.
Explained simply, the ketogenic diet is a low carb, high fat diet which puts your body into a state of fat burning. The diet is essentially tricking your body into using fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.
The most important part of a ketogenic diet is keeping your carbohydrates low enough so that there is no rise in blood sugar levels.
If your blood sugar levels rise too high, your body produces the hormone, insulin. Insulin turns off fat burning and switches your body over to burning carbs, thus storing fat.
Weight loss occurs on the ketogenic diet by keeping the gate open to your stored body fat so to speak. This enables your body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates.
What Are Total Carbs?
Total carbohydrates are the total amount of carbohydrates that a food item contains.
Total carbs include the grams of carbohydrates and fiber in a certain food.
Total Carbs = Carbohydrates + Fiber
Carbohydrates are broken down into two sections which are:
Within fiber, there are sugar alcohols and digestible and indigestible fibers.
Within carbohydrates, there are sugars, starches and many other items, but for now, let’s keep it simple.
Here is a label which shows total carbs:
Some labels display net carbs as the total carbohydrate content, which can be confusing. If you are unsure of how to tell the difference, you can read my article about understanding carbs on nutritional labels here .
What Are Net Carbs?
Net carbs can be defined as total carbohydrates minus fiber:
Net Carbs = Total Carbohydrates – Fiber
The reason net carbs are more important than total carbs on the ketogenic diet is that they include fiber, which has no impact on blood sugar levels.
If you remember from before, there is no rise in blood sugar levels from excess carbohydrates. As a result, your body does not need to produce insulin and your system utilizes fat for energy rather than carbs.
Since net carbohydrates (total carbs – fiber) produce a rise in blood sugar levels, this should be the only portion of carbohydrates you worry about.
When Would You Track Total Carbs Over Net Carbs?
You might be better off tracking total carbs as opposed to net carbs if you have:
- A very high body fat percentage
- Been diagnosed as diabetic
- High insulin resistance
Tracking total carbohydrates means that you are including the fiber as part of your daily carbohydrates.
For the people who fall into the categories listed above, a very serious reduction in carbohydrate content might be necessary to induce ketosis.
Often, excess body fat can manipulate hormones such as insulin, which in turn may prevent you from getting into a state of ketosis as easily as other people.
In these particular instances, it’s best to track total carbohydrates since your body is VERY sensitive to the negative impact of carbohydrates.
Tracking total carbohydrates will help eliminate processed foods that contain sugar alcohols or indigestible fiber. Many pre-packaged foods will contain more than your allocated carbs in the fiber content alone and tracking carbs will help you know what to avoid.
When Would You Track Net Carbs?
The problem with tracking total carbs is that your diet can become very limited.
There are many foods which contain high amounts of fiber that you would have to limit in order to stay within your daily carbohydrate limit if you are tracking total carbs. These are:
- Low Carb Fruits
- Nuts and Seeds
I often receive emails from clients who are scared to eat too many vegetables because it will put them over their daily carbohydrate limit for the day.
I believe that eating a wide variety of foods within the ketogenic diet is more important, and will keep you more satisfied. This includes vegetables, low carb fruits, nuts and seeds. There are only a few cases where tracking total carbs or eating a carnivore diet might be more appropriate, but that is best determined individually and your starting point.
From my experience enjoying a ketogenic diet and witnessing it with clients, tracking net carbs is the best way to go.
If you have been tracking net carbs for more than 6 months and you want to delve deeper into optimising your diet, tracking total carbs can be very useful, but it often comes at a price of diet variety and rigid tracking protocols.