Accurately determine the carb content of foods to nail your health goals

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Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDCES - Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

Knowing the carb content of the foods you eat is helpful whether you are working hard to manage blood sugar or body weight. Review these different ways to count carbs to stay on track and achieve results.

Carb content of foods

Why is it important to pay attention to the carb content of foods?

Carbs are found in a variety of foods commonly consumed. Counting carbs can help you reach your weight-loss goals and understand how food impacts blood sugar. If you have diabetes, this essential skill will help keep blood sugar in target range since carbohydrates directly affect your blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, a lack of carb knowledge in what you eat increases the risk for very high blood sugar (> 200 mg/dL) and low blood sugar (< 70 mg/dL).

2 primary methods of determining the carb content of foods

Counting total carbohydrates

The most common carb counting method is counting "total carbohydrate" grams listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Total carbohydrates are the sum of starch (which is not required to be listed), fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohol. This method accounts for the total possible carbohydrate grams a given food or beverage provides, regardless of digestibility.

Tip: People make the common mistake of just counting sugar grams when reading food labels. Focusing only on sugar underestimates the total carbohydrate load of any food containing starch.

Net carbohydrates

Another method of carb counting is calculating “net carbs.” The MyNetDiary app and other trackers explain the definition of “net carb” as the total amount of digestible carbohydrate in a food or meal. Here it is:

Net carbs = total carbohydrate grams - fiber grams - sugar alcohol grams

This method assumes little breakdown and absorption of fibers and sugar alcohols in food and, therefore, should not be included in carb counts. Regarding breakdown and absorption, fibers (especially soluble) and sugar alcohols are a mixed bag, consequently affecting blood sugar.

This method is no longer taught in diabetes education classes since it underestimates the whole digestible carb load and, therefore, the expected rise in blood sugar after eating. Although not digested in the small intestine, some soluble or viscous fibers can be broken down in the large intestine, absorbed, and then converted to sugar.

Some sugar alcohols (low-caloric sweeteners) can also be broken down and converted to sugar. Net carb counting is fine for low-carb diets. Still, suppose you take rapid-acting insulin and find that your post-meal blood sugar is too high. In that case, you may need help adjusting your insulin-to-carb ratio or decide to switch to the total carb-counting method.

Logging what you eat and paying attention to the carb content of foods are critical to understanding how different food and lifestyle factors affect your blood sugar and weight.

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Diabetes->Carbs & Carb Counting Diabetes->Tracking Nutrients->"Carbs: Fiber, Starch, & Sugar"
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