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Let's go back for a minute and think about the reason behind the low-carb approach...
Copyright © February 2006 Jonny Bowden and Low Carb Luxury
It's to control blood sugar and insulin. After all, why try to limit
carbohydrates to a reasonably low level in the first place? Because you're trying
to get off the blood sugar rollercoaster. By limiting huge spikes in blood sugar,
and the unhealthy sustained levels of insulin that follow, for many people, you're
helping to both control weight, and turn off the constant signal to the body to
"store that fat!" And of course, in addition to weight loss, you're also getting
all the dramatic health benefits of lower triglycerides in the bargain.
OK then. So the reason we're interested in controlling carbs is because high carb
intake, for most people, raises blood sugar far higher than we want it to be. But
here's the deal: because of the weird way that the government measures carbs, a
lot of stuff gets mixed together under the heading "carbohydrate" on the nutrition
facts label. But not all carbohydrates listed on the label are created equal.
Here's why: The measurement of carbs on a label is done through something called
"the difference method." The difference method works like this: If I'm talking to
a roomful of 100 people, and I want to know how many men are in the room, I can
simply count up the total number of people (100), count up the number of women
(let's say 40) and subtract the number of women from the total (100 – 40 = 60.) What's
left is 60 people, which can reasonably assumed to be men, (assuming of course
that no aliens have taken residence in the lecture hall.)
Well that's how carbs are measured. They take the total number of calories, add
up the protein and the fat, and figure what's left is carbohydrate.
That's perfectly fine. Except that under that "carb" label are some things we really
don't care about, from a blood sugar point of view. For example: fiber. If you
pricked your finger and did a glucose (blood sugar) reading, and then downed a
glass of pure psyillium husks or even unsweetened Metamucil (I know — disgusting — but
stay with me here), and then you re-measured your blood afterward, the readings wouldn't
change at all. Fiber simply has no effect on blood sugar because it's basically not
digested. But because of the "difference method," fiber is "counted" on the nutrition
facts label as a carbohydrate. Yet low-carbers don't need to worry about the grams
of fiber when counting carbs.
So we subtract them. At the most basic level, net (or effective) carbs are simply
the total number of carbs on the label, minus the fiber. So, for example, if you
have a serving of raspberries that contains 14 grams of carbohydrate, but 8 of
them are fiber, your "net carbs" are 6 grams. These are the ones you "count." These are
the ones that affect your blood sugar.
Of course, when it comes to processed foods like bars, packaged mixes, ready to
drink shakes and the like, it gets just a bit more complicated, but the same
principle applies. The manufacturers of these products subtract fiber from the
total carb content, but they also subtract sugar alcohols and glycerine. The
basic idea is that these compounds don't appreciably impact blood sugar either
(at least for the majority of non-diabetic people, and even for many diabetics)
so we don't need to "count" them as part of the total carb content.
On any nutrition facts label, the manufacturer is required to give you the total
carbs and the fiber grams, so you can do that part of the calculation yourself.
Sugar alcohols and their relatives (for example, "glycerine") are not necessarily
listed on the facts label, so you really have no way of knowing how to account
for them. But in products marketed to the carb conscious consumer they'll tell
you, often giving you the net carb count right on the label. Not all manufacturers
are as conscientious and scrupulous as, for example, Atkins, so it's kind of a
crapshoot with many of the products as to whether or not their net carb counts
are accurate (Atkins' are, and so are a few other companies.)
Remember though — not everyone has an insignificant blood sugar response to
sugar alcohols (though virtually everyone does to fiber.) And some sugar
alcohols — maltitol for example — have turned out to raise blood sugar after all,
though not as much as sugar itself. Be careful. Lots of sugar alcohols can
definitely upset the applecart and just might screw up your weight loss efforts.
As always, respect your individual differences, experiment, and see how it works
in your life.
The take-home point: You're interested in the impact that the food you're eating has
on your blood sugar and your hormones, and that's what the net carb count tells
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