Should Type 2 diabetics count carbs or net carbs?

For people with type 2 diabetes, carbohydrates can significantly impact blood sugar levels. When managing diabetes through diet, an important consideration is whether to count total carbs or net carbs. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the differences between total carbs and net carbs, as well as expert opinions on which approach may be better for managing type 2 diabetes.

What’s the Difference Between Total Carbs and Net Carbs?

Total carbohydrates include all carbs found in a food – starch, sugar, and fiber. Net carbs refer only to the digestible carbohydrates that affect blood sugar, which is total carbs minus fiber:

  • Total carbs = starch + sugar + fiber
  • Net carbs = total carbs – fiber

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot digest. So while fiber is included in the total carb count, it does not impact blood sugar. Subtracting fiber from total carbs gives you net carbs – the carbs that actually affect blood glucose levels.

Why Do Carbs Matter for Diabetes Management?

When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, causing a rise in blood sugar levels. With diabetes, the body has difficulty properly regulating blood glucose levels.

Eating too many carbs can lead to frequent high blood sugar spikes. Over time, this puts strain on the body and raises the risk for diabetes complications. Therefore, it’s important for those with diabetes to monitor their carbohydrate intake.

Counting carbs is a way to be mindful of how different foods impact blood sugar. Understanding how carbs affect you individually can help keep blood glucose levels in check.

Counting Total Carbs

Counting total carbs is the standard method recommended by organizations like the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Total carbs include all carbohydrates – starches, sugars, and fiber. To count total carbs:

  • Check the nutrition label for the amount of total carbohydrates in grams per serving.
  • Add up carbs from all food eaten at a meal or snack.
  • Try to stay within your personalized carb budget for the day.

A carb budget is the maximum amount of carbs recommended for your daily meals and snacks, usually based on your weight, activity level, medications, and blood sugar goals. A typical carb budget for diabetes is around 45-60 grams of total carbs per meal.

The advantage of counting total carbs is that it’s simple. You don’t have to worry about calculating anything – just check the nutrition label for the total carb amount.

Potential Drawbacks of Counting Total Carbs

However, there are some potential downsides to only tracking total carbs:

  • Doesn’t account for impact of fiber: Fiber is included in total carbs, but does not affect blood sugar. For foods high in fiber, total carbs may overestimate the blood sugar impact.
  • Less flexibility: Due to fiber being included, you may hit your carb limit sooner and need to restrict food choices.
  • Less precision: Total carb counts are less precise for determining portions and insulin needs.

Counting Net Carbs

With the net carb method, you calculate net carbs by subtracting grams of fiber from total carbs. To count net carbs:

  • Check the nutrition label for total carbohydrates and fiber.
  • Subtract fiber from total carbs to get net carbs.
  • Add up the net carbs from foods eaten.
  • Stay within your net carb budget for the day.

A typical net carb budget is around 60-90 grams per day. This higher range allows more flexibility for fitting in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with higher fiber.

Potential Benefits of Counting Net Carbs

Advocates of the net carb approach point to these potential advantages:

  • More accurate: Better reflects the carbs that directly impact blood sugar.
  • Greater precision: Allows fine-tuning carbohydrate portions and insulin dosing.
  • More flexibility: Provides wiggle room to eat more foods with naturally occurring fiber.
  • Encourages fiber intake: Fiber has health benefits like promoting gut health, weight management, and heart health.

Drawbacks of Counting Net Carbs

However, there are also some downsides to consider with counting net carbs:

  • More work: Requires an extra step of calculating net carbs for each food.
  • Prone to errors: Miscounting or miscalculating net carbs can undermine diabetes management.
  • Less standard: Total carbs are used in most nutrition labels and guidelines.

Which Approach Do Experts Recommend?

When it comes to counting carbs for diabetes management, which method do experts typically suggest?

The American Diabetes Association takes the position that there is insufficient evidence proving the net carb approach has significant benefits for diabetes management. They recommend counting total carbs, as it is simpler and more standard.

However, some diabetes experts think the net carb approach is more beneficial for accounting for the blood sugar impacts of different carbohydrates. They argue the precision of counting net carbs empowers people to better control their blood sugar response.

Overall, there is no consensus among experts on one “right” approach. In practice, it often comes down to the individual.

Factors to Consider

Certain factors may make net carbs more or less appropriate for an individual:

  • Medications – Insulin users may benefit more from net carb precision for dosing.
  • Diabetes management – Newly diagnosed may prefer total carbs for simplicity.
  • Food preferences – Net carbs allow more fibers like fruit and whole grains.
  • Lifestyle needs – More active lifestyles may demand more carbs.

Work with your diabetes care team to determine the best carb counting method for your needs and preferences.

How to Count Net Carbs

If you want to take a net carb approach, here are some steps to count net carbs accurately:

  1. Use nutrition labels – Check total carbs and fiber amounts per serving.
  2. Look up foods without labels – Use a nutrition database like the USDA’s to find carb and fiber grams.
  3. Weigh foods – For accuracy, especially with whole foods like produce.
  4. Subtract fiber from total carbs – Use an app or calculator to determine net carbs.
  5. Track as you go – Keep a running tally of net carbs consumed.
  6. Consult a registered dietitian – For help personalizing your carb and fiber goals.

Net Carb Calculations

Here are examples of how to calculate net carbs from nutrition labels:

Food: 1 small apple
Total carbs: 25g

Fiber: 4g
Net Carbs: 25g – 4g = 21g

Food: 1 cup cooked quinoa

Total carbs: 39g
Fiber: 5g
Net Carbs: 39g – 5g = 34g

Net Carb Tracking Apps and Tools

Apps and online tools can help calculate and track net carbs. Some options include:

  • MyFitnessPal
  • Lose It!
  • Cronometer
  • Carb Manager
  • Glucose Buddy

Look for apps with comprehensive food databases, user-friendly interfaces, and features like barcode scanners and recipe builders. Syncing with wearables or blood glucose meters can provide further insights.

Incorporating Fiber-Rich Foods

A perk of net carb counting is it provides more opportunities to incorporate fiber-rich foods. Focus on getting fiber from whole, minimally processed sources like:

  • Fruits – berries, pears, apples
  • Vegetables – broccoli, carrots, greens
  • Legumes – lentils, beans, peas
  • Whole grains – oats, quinoa, brown rice
  • Nuts and seeds

Aim for 25-50 grams of fiber daily. Increase high-fiber foods gradually to allow your body to adjust.

Sample Higher Fiber Meal Plan

Here is a sample one-day meal plan focused on high fiber foods within a net carb budget:


  • 1 cup oatmeal (24g net carbs, 4g fiber)
  • 1 cup blueberries (14g net carbs, 3g fiber)
  • 1 tbsp ground flaxseed (3g net carbs, 2g fiber)

Total: 41g net carbs, 9g fiber


  • Tuna salad sandwich on 2 slices whole grain bread (34g net carbs, 8g fiber)
  • 1 medium apple (16g net carbs, 4g fiber)
  • Baby carrots, 1/2 cup (5g net carbs, 2g fiber)

Total: 55g net carbs, 14g fiber


  • 3 oz. salmon (0g net carbs)
  • 1 cup broccoli (6g net carbs, 2g fiber)
  • 1/2 cup lentils (14g net carbs, 8g fiber)
  • 1/2 cup brown rice (18g net carbs, 1g fiber)

Total: 38g net carbs, 11g fiber


  • 1 medium pear (17g net carbs, 5g fiber)
  • 1 oz. almonds (3g net carbs, 3g fiber)

Total: 20g net carbs, 8g fiber

Daily Totals:

  • Net carbs: 154g
  • Fiber: 42g

Low-Carb Diet Trends

Various low-carb diets like keto and Atkins have grown in popularity for diabetes management and weight loss. But restrictive low-carb diets tend to lack fruits, veggies, and whole grains with protective fiber and nutrients.

The benefits of fiber and overall diet quality should be balanced with carbohydrate management. Work with your doctor for carb recommendations tailored to your health needs.

Should You Count Total or Net Carbs?

When it comes to managing type 2 diabetes, there are good arguments on both sides of counting total carbs versus net carbs. Here are some key points to consider when deciding on the best approach for you:

Total Carbs

  • Simpler method recommended by ADA
  • Works well for basic carb budgeting
  • Easy to track with label readings
  • May restrict food choices due to fiber

Net Carbs

  • Accounts for blood sugar impact of fiber
  • Allows more precision with portions and insulin
  • Provides flexibility for fiber-rich foods
  • Requires calculating net values

Ultimately, choose the method that best suits your preferences and diabetes management strategy. Focus on developing a balanced, fiber-rich diet within your personalized carb plan.

Tracking and meeting fiber goals each day may provide benefits like improved gut health, heart health, steady energy levels, and weight control. But be sure to make gradual increases in high-fiber foods to allow your body to adjust.

Whichever carb counting approach you use, consistency is key for maintaining optimal blood sugar control.

The Takeaway

Counting carbs is an effective strategy for managing type 2 diabetes and keeping blood sugar levels in check. While total carbs are simpler, net carbs provide more precision for accounting for the blood sugar impacts of different foods.

The best approach depends on individual factors. Work with your healthcare team to determine appropriate carb and fiber goals. Focus on getting fiber from minimally processed whole foods like produce, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.

With the right carb counting method and balanced meal plan personalized for you, managing carbs and fiber intake can empower you to meet your blood sugar goals and thrive with diabetes.

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