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The Truth About Net Carbs

April 27, 2005 04:04 PM

By Amanda Gwinnup-Carlson, MS, R.D., Performance Nutrition Manager, Athletes' Performance, and Jim Brown, Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal

Is “net carbs” an important nutrition concept or simply a marketing technique used by the food industry to make athletes, exercisers, and other consumers feel good about eating foods high in calories? We asked some of the country’s leading sports nutritionists for their opinions on the issue and researched the comments of other individuals and organizations. Their responses are below. Before you read what they have to say, here are some things we know about net carbs.

What We Know

  • “Net carbs” was first used by the authors of the book, Protein Power, and later adapted by Dr. Robert Atkins in his series of diet books.
  • There are no government-approved definitions for any of the new terms used to describe carbohydrate content, including low carb, impact carb, and net carbs.
  • One unofficial but commonly used definition of net carbs is “total carbohydrates minus the carbohydrates used in the product that have little or no effect on blood sugar levels, such as fiber, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners.”
  • Different companies define net carbs in different ways.
  • Several studies have shown that the carbohydrate content on the label is not consistent with the actual amount of carbohydrate in the product.
  • Just because something is lower in carbohydrates, it’s not necessarily lower in calories.

Expert Opinions
“The net carb myth is a marketing gimmick which will probably lose steam soon.” — Ann Litt, M.S., R.D., Washington, DC, author, Fuel for Young Athletes and The College Student’s Guide to Eating on Campus

“Net carbs is a marketing tool that isn’t totally correct.” — Diabetes Action Research & Education Foundation

“At the present time, net carbs has no meaning. People shouldn’t take it seriously.” — FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford, in an interview with NBC 6.

“The net carb is a marketing maneuver to sell product. I've seen pepperoni labeled as "zero net carbs." There is not standard definition for the term and it is leading to consumer confusion. The idea of carb counting makes sense and people with diabetes have been using carb counting for a while. But, diabetics are taught that only if a food contains more than five grams of fiber per serving is it not counted in the total carb. The labels provide all the tools that people need to carb count. They are going to forget that calories count if they just read the net carb claims.” — Chris Rosenbloom, Ph.D., R.D., Georgia State University

More Important Than Net Carbs
More important than looking at net carbs is looking for carbohydrates that are rich in color and high in fiber. Also, avoid the processed foods and refined sugars. This will help improve your energy levels, control you blood sugar levels, and decrease your risk of cardiovascular diseases and obesity.

Most sports nutritionists don’t tell anyone to consume a total number of net carbs or carbohydrate in general. The only time to be concerned about carbohydrate intake and exact numbers is after a workout or a match. Make sure that you are replacing what you use so that you can be 100 percent the next time you train or compete. Tennis players should concentrate on eating whole grains (whole wheat breads, brown rice, etc), fruits, and vegetables instead of doing mental math to figure out how many net carbs or carbs they are eating. The phrases "net carb," "low carb," and "impact carb" were created by companies to give their products more shelf appeal. Whether we are talking about a net carb, a carb, a sugar alcohol, etc., they are still calories that contribute to energy balance. This is just one more area where consumers must be cautious and conscious.

The other fact is that many of these new products are more expensive. When you have finished your grocery shopping and you see a variety of low-carb products in your cart, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve? Less carbs, less calories, or a healthy diet?” The bottom line: Carbohydrates equal fuel, period. Choose the amount of carbohydrate you consume based upon your activity level. When choosing carbohydrates, think about the less refined types. Look at the product and look at the fiber content. Look at the ingredients. Go for whole wheat, fruits, vegetables, and fiber. What we don’t need is another fad or confusing labels in promising a quick fix.

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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