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Impact Carbs, Net Carbs and Effective Carbs – Is Marketing Slang Messing With Your Low-Carb Diet?
Low-carb diets are here to stay. There is no doubt that they can be very effective for fat loss when done correctly. But low-carb diets aren’t easy for those who are used to eating a lot of carbohydrates. You must strictly limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat to get results. It’s not unusual for a person on a low-carb diet to find themselves staring longingly at a loaf of bread or cake!
But here comes nutrition and supplement science to the rescue in the form of no impact carbs, net carbs, and effective carbs with the promise of low-carb foods wrapped up in traditionally high-carb packages! It seems like a dream come true for low-carb dieters who crave the taste of carbohydrate-containing foods but still want the results of a low-carb diet.
These terms are the latest buzzwords in the weight loss industry, but are people getting more than they bargained for with net carb-based, impact-free, and effective foods and supplements? Could these designer foods be slowing or even halting your progress on a low-carb diet?
Let’s start with a little about Nutrition 101. A carbohydrate is a nutrient that is used by your body for energy. It contains 4 kilocalories of energy per gram (kilocalorie is the formal name of calorie).
Your body converts the carbohydrates you eat into glucose/blood sugar for use in a wide variety of metabolic processes. This conversion can occur quickly or slowly depending on the type of carbohydrate food consumed. This rate is known as the glycemic index. A higher number means that the food is converted to glucose quickly – a lower number means that the food is converted to glucose more slowly. For example, table sugar has a high glycemic index while beans have a low glycemic index.
In general, a slower conversion of carbohydrates to blood sugar is better. Here because…
The faster food is converted into blood sugar, the faster blood sugar levels rise. When blood sugar levels are high, your body secretes insulin, its main reserve hormone. When insulin is present in the bloodstream, energy nutrients such as fat or carbohydrates are much more likely to be stored than burned. In terms of fat loss, this means that fat is not readily mobilized from fat cells and fat burning slows down or even stops.
By controlling insulin secretion, you can effectively improve your body’s ability to mobilize fat from fat cells. Once mobilized by fat cells, they are burned more easily for energy, i.e. fat is lost. This is the basic premise on which most low-carb diets are built (there are exceptions, such as ketogenic diets, which I will discuss later in the article).
Non-impact carbohydrates, simply put, are carbohydrates that have a minimal effect on blood sugar levels when eaten. Since they don’t impact blood sugar levels, they’re technically “allowed” in most low-carb diets.
Examples of non-impact carbohydrates you’ll see in low-carb foods and supplements include fiber, sorbitol, maltitol, and glycerol. Fiber is completely indigestible by the body and passes through unused. Sorbitol, maltitol and glycerol are what are known as “sugar alcohols”. They are digested by the body but have little or no effect on blood sugar levels.
Effective carbohydrate is the opposite of non-impact carbohydrate. They are carbohydrates that will have an effect on blood sugar levels. In most low-carb diets, the idea is to limit the carbohydrates that are effective for keeping blood sugar and, therefore, insulin levels in check. On a strict low-carb diet, this number can be as high as 20 grams of effective carbohydrates per day.
Effective carbohydrates can be divided into two basic groups: simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are quickly converted into glucose by the body while complex carbohydrates (which, as the name suggests, have a more complex structure) generally take longer to convert into glucose.
The net carb count is basically the same as the actual carb count. It is the total number of carbohydrates in the food minus the non-impact carbohydrates. These terms can really be used interchangeably which can be confusing for consumers.
For example, if a food contains 30 grams of carbohydrates and 10 of those carbohydrates are fiber, the food contains 20 grams of net carbohydrates. It’s basically what’s left over after subtracting everything else.
The term “Net Carb” was coined by supplement manufacturers after glycerol (the non-impact sugar alcohol discussed above) was reclassified by the FDA as a carbohydrate. Previously, it hadn’t been classified as either a carbohydrate or a fat, and supplement manufacturers could use it as a sweetener without adding to a protein bar’s carb count. When this reclassification happened, the carb count of the low carb protein bars increased dramatically! The term “Net Carb” is a result of manufacturers wanting to keep their carbohydrate count down while still using glycerol in the manufacturing process.
The “up” side:
1. Non-impact carbohydrates are very effective in reducing the insulin response you get from eating foods made with them. This means that your insulin levels will stay more even throughout the day, which will definitely improve your body’s ability to burn fat.
2. No-impact carbs help low-carb dieters stick to their diet. There’s no denying that sometimes you just want to eat a cookie. By eating a low-carb cookie, you enjoy the cookie while keeping your insulin levels in check.
3. Low-carb foods are actually used by people who are not on strictly low-carb diets, but just want to reduce their carbohydrate intake. Non-impact carbohydrates are very effective for this purpose.
The other side of the coin:
1. While non-impact carbs don’t impact blood sugar levels, they still contain calories (except for fiber, which isn’t digestible). A person who eats a lot of non-impactful, carbohydrate-containing foods still gets all the calories of an equivalent amount of normal carbohydrates! This fact is never highlighted in advertising for impactless carbohydrate foods. Total calorie intake is still important in low-carb diets. If your body is getting too many calories, it won’t need to burn body fat.
2. If you eat large amounts (or in some people, even small amounts) of sugar alcohols, you may experience what might tactfully be called the “green apple rapid pace,” i.e. diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are not normally found in large quantities in natural foods, and the body may have difficulty digesting them. What the body has trouble digesting, it tends to get rid of as quickly as possible (if you know the results of consuming Olestra, fake fat, you’ll understand what I’m talking about).
3. If you are following a low-carb diet designed to put the body into ketosis (a state in which the body burns ketones for energy instead of blood glucose), you may find that eating impactless carbohydrates puts the body out of butt ketosis by providing calories similar to carbohydrates. In this case, the impactless carbohydrate basically defeats the whole purpose of the low-carb diet. If you are following a ketogenic diet, stay away from foods that have no impact carbohydrates as they will impact your diet.
4. The FDA has not formally defined the terms “Low-Carb,” “Non-Impact Carbs,” and “Net Carbs” as it has the terms related to the fat content of foods. That’s sure to happen, but in the meantime, many foods that aren’t particularly low-carb can get away with labeling themselves low-carb. As always, reading the nutrition information on the package and noting serving sizes is your best protection.
Is the recent surge in low-carb foods on the market here to stay? Big food manufacturers rely on it, as evidenced by a recent carbohydrate summit in Denver attended by many large companies like Con-Agra and WalMart.
In my opinion, however, the burning question when it comes to low-carb foods is: Are we straying from the real point of the low-carb diet? Processed foods are what got us into the obesity epidemic we’re in today.
Is replacing one type of processed and packaged food with another type of processed and packaged food (even if “healthier”) the way to go, or would it be better to focus on less processed and naturally low-carb foods?
The answer lies in how you choose to approach your low-carb diet. Foods that contain “no-impact carbs” can certainly be beneficial occasionally, but I don’t think it’s wise to rely on them for a significant portion of your food intake. If you rely too much on non-impact carbohydrate foods, you could easily find yourself not losing or even gaining weight with your diet!
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