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Net Carbs - Healthy or Hype?

The words "Net Carb" or "Low Carb" are everywhere today in food advertisements.  These ads are targeting consumers following low carbohydrate diets.  

The National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) indicates such diets may cause fast weight loss BUT most of the weight lost is water and lean muscle instead of body fat.  Further, NIDDK states low carbohydrate/high protein diets often allow a lot of dietary fat which increases risk for heart disease and some cancers.

Even though groups like NIDDK say these low carb diets are not healthy and that you are more likely to keep weight off if you follow a balanced diet, food advertisements are guiding consumers down the low carb craze.

What does low carb mean?  Officially, the Food & Drug Administration has not established a definition for low carb or net carb.  Food manufacturers base calculating net carbs on the basis that sugar alcohols and fiber are not digested in the body and therefore should be deducted from the total carbohydrate.  The net carb is supposed to be the amount of carbohydrate that is actually absorbed and affects blood sugar.

What does this mean if you have diabetes?  In treating diabetes and counting carbohydrates, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) indicates the type of carbohydrate and how it affects blood sugar should be considered.  The ADA therefore recommends the following guidelines when reading a food label:

  1. deduct fiber from the total carbohydrates IF the amount of fiber is greater than 5 grams (for example if a product contains 30 grams total carbohydrate and 6 grams of fiber, subtract 6 grams fiber from 30 grams total carbohydrate to figure the total carbohydrate that will affect blood sugar = 24 grams total carbohydrate) 
  2. deduct 1/2 the grams of sugar alcohol from total carbohydrate IF the amount of sugar alcohol equals 5 grams or more (for example if a food product contains 30 grams carbohydrate and 8 grams of sugar alcohol, divide the sugar alcohol by 2 = 4 grams sugar alcohol; then subtract the 4 grams of sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrate to figure the total carbohydrate that will affect blood sugar  = 26 grams total carbohydrate).

When counting carbohydrates, further investigation of the food label is needed to calculate the actual the amount of carbohydrate that affects blood sugar.  Additionally, in an effort to maintain a healthy bodyweight, calories should always be considered.  Low carb or carb free does not always mean low calorie.

American Dietetic Association Manual of Clinical Dietetics, 6th Edition.  American Dietetics Association. 

Marcason, W.  What Do "Net Carb," and "Impact Carb" Really Mean on Food Labels?  JADA: 104; 1, 135.

National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  Weight-Loss and Nutrition Myths.  NIH Publication No. 01-4561.

Note:  Talk with your Registered Dietitian about carbohydrate counting and a calorie level that is right for you.

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