Understanding Carbohydrates, Net Carbs, Complex Carbs


Understanding carbs in your diet
What are carbs?

Understanding Low Carb Diets

The first step in preparing healthier meals for myself is to start to truly understand carbohydrates! My dog, Dexter, is on a pretty low carb diet, consisting of mostly DIY raw dog food. When I’m preparing his meals, I shoot for approximately 90% hormone-and-antibiotic-free meats, with the remaining ingredients being healthy vegetables, fruits, and greens. But, for myself, I’m clueless at what is ideal or most healthful, so I asked a few nutritional experts, and here’s what they had to say.

Are Carbohydrates Necessary in Healthy Diet?

Natalie Ikeman, MPAS, PA-C, a physician assistant in Family Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare’s Golden Valley Clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers this insight. “Carbohydrates are found in healthy and unhealthy foods. They come in the three most common forms: sugars (fruit sugar- fructose, table sugar-sucrose, and milk sugar-lactose), starches (veggies, grains, and cooked dried beans) and fiber (fruits, veggies, and whole grains). Sugar is a simple carb.”

She continues by explaining that “Carbs are part of a healthy diet and give the body glucose, which converts into energy for sustaining brain function to running. Carbs are your body’s fuel source. Complex carbs and fiber can help prevent chronic disease and help with gut health.

Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs

Natalie continues to provide examples of simple and complex carbohydrates by stating, “Simple (bad) carbs are broken down quickly and send a quick burst of energy into the body then shortly later you feel a crash. Think refined white sugar, white rice, and white bread. These foods are highly processed and healthy parts of the food are removed, like fiber and nutrients. Because these important parts are removed, they are absorbed faster- which explains the fast burst of energy. Complex (good) carbs take longer to break down and supply a slow release of energy into your body. Think whole grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, etc.”

Carbs vs. Net Carbs

Sylvia North Msc, BSc, a New Zealand registered dietitian provided me with some helpful insight on carbs vs. net carbs. “Total carbs describes the combination of ‘nutritive’ carbohydrates including sugars, starches, and sugar alcohols (partially nutritive). Sugars, starches, and some sugar alcohols provide calories and stimulate a hormonal and metabolic response. That’s because we have many enzymes in the upper parts of our digestive system, which break them down into simple sugars to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Calculating Net Carbs

She continues by explaining, “Total carbs also accounts for the grams of fiber in a product. Fiber is technically a carbohydrate (according to the chemistry), however, fiber is mostly non-nutritive, meaning, we don’t digest and absorb the calories from fiber. Although we do not have the enzymes to break down fibers in our upper digestive system, the bacteria in our lower bowel do. This means that fiber technically yields calories, except they are usually good calories that provide nourishment to gut-lining cells and good bacteria and usually not associated with weight gain. Sugar alcohols should really be a category on their own since they can be partially digested but also tend to cause gut upset in many people.

“To find the net carbs subtract fiber from total carbs, leaving only nutritive carbohydrates. Meaning, only the carbohydrates that are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream as simple sugars. Net carbs can only be calculated this way if fiber has been added into the total carbs. Net carbs is the relevant number for most people because it indicates the starch and sugar that will yield calories. More importantly, sugar and starch stimulate a metabolic response (change in insulin and glucagon levels) to the rise in blood glucose levels. Fiber does not directly influence insulin levels. In someone with metabolic health and fat loss goals, we want to manage their blood glucose and insulin response to a meal, which is why moderating net cabs is important.”

How Many Daily Carbs Should a Person Eat?

Dr. Barry Sears, president of Inflammation Research Foundation, gives us these recommendations. “Ideally, the intake of net carbs should be about 100 to 150 grams of net carbs per day. Anything less will lead to ketosis. Anything more will lead to increased insulin secretion. The brain needs about 130 grams of glucose per day to function optimally.” He continues by saying, “Carb-free is not to be recommended as the brain needs a minimal level of blood glucose to function correctly. If you are not eating adequate levels of carbs, the body will increase the secretion of the hormone cortisol to cause the breakdown of muscle to produce adequate glucose for the brain.”

Leah Forristall, RD, LDN agrees by stating, “Carbohydrates shouldn’t be feared! Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables all contain fiber, which can help with digestion and reducing bad cholesterol levels. They also help keep you full longer.”

No Carb Diet

She continues by explaining, “For the general population, I would not recommend going carb-free. Cutting carbohydrates out of your diet can lead to deficiencies, and a lack of fiber in your diet can potentially have negative consequences such as constipation and higher cholesterol levels. Carbohydrates are also the main source of energy in the body, and removing them can lead to low energy levels.”

I also spoke with Tara Roscioli, a Certified Holistic Health Coach and owner of Highway 2 Well. Tara states, “For women who are attempting to lose weight, many dietitians recommend that they consume between 35-75 grams of net carbohydrates a day. Once in a maintenance phase, women can consume about 125g net carbs a day.”

She continues by saying, “People don’t realize that there are carbohydrates in many high fiber foods that are essential to our diet like fruits and vegetables. Completely eliminating carbohydrates from your diet results in the body taking in too little fiber, and fiber is important for reducing the risks of breast and colons cancers.”

Putting it All Together

One point all these wonderful nutritional experts made was that each one of us is an individual and not one number or diet is right for everyone. For me personally, I’m going to focus on reducing my processed foods and reducing my simple carbs. I do want to stress reduce, as I feel some simple carbs, such as fruits, do offer nutritional value in moderation.

I have already started to prepare my own home-cooked meals vs. prepared frozen dinners, so that’s a good start. I’m also working hard at eating the recommended proportions instead of filling my plate. But, for this girl who loves her chocolate cake and baked goods, it’s going to be a battle. Decrease is my current goal, as I do not want to set myself up for failure.


Have you decreased your carbohydrate intake? I’d love to hear your story.

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Understanding Carbohydrates, Net Carbs and Complex Carbs. I\'m clueless at what is ideal or most healthful, so I asked a few nutritional experts, and here\'s what they had to say. #LifewithTonya #carbs #lowcarb #lowcarbdiet #nocarbdiet