Demystifying Carbs on the Label: Fiber, Sugars, Sugar Alcohols and “Net Carbs”
This article was originally published at OlderBeast, whose mission is to help 40+ guys “double down” on body-and-soul health for the 2nd half of their life.
Grab something with a nutrition label and look at the “carbs” section. You’ll see total carbs, dietary fiber, sugars and (if present) sugar alcohols.
Confusingly, “total carbs” is sometimes more than the sum of the sub-categories. That’s because starch, another type of carb, is not shown. And sometimes, food packaging also calls out “net carbs” (that’s total carbs minus dietary fiber).
If you’re a human, you have one or more good reasons to pay attention to these different types of carbs.
Hopefully, you’re reducing “bad for you carbs” (added sugars and refined flours). And seeking enough fiber. Possibly, you restrict total carbs (something I’d approach warily, if you’re cutting good-for-you carbs as part of that). Or maybe, you’re endurance training and want to ensure you replenish enough carbs.
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Whatever your reason for looking at carbs info, you should understand the basics of what this all means — especially as a 40+ guy doubling down on nutrition as part of maximizing his decades ahead.
Fiber: Soluble vs. Insoluble
Fiber, from plant-based foods, is something your body doesn’t digest. But its passage through your body plays a critical role in your health.
“Soluble” fiber becomes gel-like when you drink water, slows down digestion, and prolongs feeling full. This is good if you’re trying to eat less. Or if you want sustain release of energy for endurance things. Picture Aztec warriors marching through the mountains all day, powered by high-fiber chia seeds.
Soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol in your digestive system and carries it out of the body, reducing LDL “bad” cholesterol. It also reduces absorption of sugar.
Oatmeal, beans and flax and chia seeds are especially high in soluble fiber. That’s why you hear these foods linked to “heart health” and diabetes-related diets.
“Insoluble” fiber, conversely, moves through your digestion unchanged. It helps keep you regular. Read up on this and you’ll see words like “soft” and “bulky” (in a good way, man).
Foods high in insoluble fiber include whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans, most vegetables, and many fruits. Everyday fruits — apples, less-ripe bananas, oranges, strawberries — are all pretty good.
Many foods contain both kinds of fiber, but they tend to be higher in one than the other. If you eat a variety of these things, you’ll be doing fine.
Fiber: How Much to Eat?
U.S. dietary guidelines say 30–38 grams for men (the lower number if you’re 51 or over).
The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics says: “Populations that consume more dietary fiber have less chronic disease (including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers) and have been associated with lower body weights. The mean intake of dietary fiber in the United States is 17 g/day, with only 5 percent of the population meeting the Adequate Intake.”
So, the vast majority of us need to worry about eating more fiber, not worry about too much! If you’re increasing your fiber intake, do it slowly over a few weeks, and make sure to hydrate well. Otherwise, various gastrointestinal discomforts may ensue.
Fiber & “Net Carbs”
Net Carbs = Total Carbs minus Dietary Fiber. This is because fiber carbs don’t stay in your body (for the most part; some soluble fiber carbs are absorbed). So if you’re managing total carb intake, think of fiber as a different kind of carb you don’t really need to count.
But also remember, unless you’re on an extreme low carb diet (which is controversial), you don’t want “net carbs” to equal zero or even close to it! You should be getting at least 100 non-fiber carbs per day (while you’re also getting 30+ grams of fiber). If following dietary guidelines fully, you’ll get more like 200–300 non-fiber carbs per day.
Sugars: Always Reduce the “Added” Kind
Starting in 2018, U.S. food labels will have another line in the carbs section: added sugars. This will differentiate between natural sugars from the food itself vs. those added for taste.
Yeah, an apple may have 19 grams of sugar…but it comes in a natural bundle with a good amount of fiber and a variety of powerful, health-protecting antioxidants.
A packaged food product with 19 grams of sugar may have most or all of that sugar be from an added source. And that added sugar isn’t bringing you any health benefits at all, dude…just causing potential problems.
So always be cautious of things with sugar as an added ingredient. You don’t need to await the new food label to see this. You can read the ingredients, man! Here’s a list of 61 things that basically mean “sugar.”
Hey, I like coffee ice cream as much as the next guy. I use honey to sweeten oatmeal. So I’m not urging you to be a zero-added-sugar zealot. But: be wary of added sugar, and usually reduce/avoid it.
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Sugar Alcohols: Be aware and Don’t Over-do
Sugar alcohols are modified sugar molecules our bodies can’t digest. In that way, they’re like fiber…but without any of fiber’s health benefits. Commonly-seen ingredients like sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol and erythritol are sugar alcohols.
They sweeten without calories and dental side-effects, but for some guys they cause major diarrhea, gas, etc. You’ll have to figure out for yourself which, if any of these, are OK for your body.
And from the perspective of long-term health, while sugar alcohols have been “Generally Regarded as Safe” by the FDA, they haven’t been highly studied over a long period. So we don’t fully know.
Personally, I react badly to sorbitol and can’t eat it if I want to stay married. I treat the other ones with some skepticism, but consume them sometimes (especially erythritol in small amounts seems benign).
With added knowledge and/or motivation this discussion may have provided, next time you’re shopping or looking through the stuff in your kitchen, look at the carbs info.
Seek out the fiber and avoid the added sugars, brother. These are words to live by in general. But especially if there are two foods with similar “taste appeal” to you, pick the one with more fiber and less sugar. That’s a no-brainer.
You’ll feel the difference in the short term, and the long-term benefits are powerful.
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