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Carbs Vs. Calories: What’s the Difference?

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  Published on January 30th, 2023
  Reading time: 5 minutes
  Last modified January 27th, 2023
Carbs vs calories on keto

Some people count calories, while others count carbs. The goals are often the same: slimming, trimming, and shedding pounds. When you’re following a ketogenic diet, even if you’re not counting carbohydrates carefully, you’re definitely remaining mindful of them in order to stay in the metabolic state of ketosis. But just because you’re following a ketogenic diet doesn’t mean you’re necessarily counting calories. So, what is the important of carbs vs. calories? Why do people count calories and carbs, and do you have to count both when you do keto?

What Are Carbs?

Carbohydrates are a dietary nutrient that provides energy. They’re molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. You can find carbohydrates in all fruits, veggies, bread and grain products, and sugary foods. When you’re on a low-carb keto diet, you drop your carb intake down to the point where your body switches from burning sugar and carbs for fuel to burning fat instead.

Your body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars like fructose and glucose in your small intestine. The sugars are absorbed into your bloodstream, where they can be used for energy. Your body converts some sugar to glycogen and stores it in your liver. When carbohydrates aren’t used for energy or glycogen storage, they’re typically converted to fat. 

A typical Western diet involves 33-70% of caloric intake from carbohydrates. Of course, this isn’t the case for keto dieters. All keto dieters are mindful of their carbohydrate intake and typically consume somewhere under 50 grams (sometimes under 20 grams) of net carbs daily. 

The category of carbohydrates includes three main types of carbs: fiber, starch, and sugar.


You’re probably familiar with the different types of sugar, such as glucose in honey, fructose in fruit and honey, and lactose in milk.


Starches are complex carbohydrates. Think of starch like chains of sugar pearls connected together in a pearl necklace. Your body breaks down this starch pearl necklace into individual sugar pearls or molecules. 

Starch is found in a range of foods, including grains, potatoes, beans, and nuts. Some foods contain more starch than others. Cereal, pasta, sugar-sweetened beverages, white flour products, and other processed foods contain a different starch than natural whole foods. 

Starchy mashed potatoes are full of carbs

Refined carbs have been processed more, and the natural fiber has been removed or changed, so they have a bigger and quicker impact on your metabolism and blood sugar. Eating refined carbohydrates spikes your blood sugar, spurs food cravings, and has been linked to several health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and obesity. [1] [2] [3]

Sugar alcohols are also classified as carbohydrates, but they don’t typically spike your blood sugar in the same way as sugar, which is why they’re usually allowed on keto diets. You subtract the fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carb count of a meal to find out your net carb count 


Since fiber doesn’t get broken down by the body, it is different than other carbs and doesn’t spike your blood sugar. Instead, it feeds the healthy bacteria (probiotics) in your gut. The bacteria in your gut can use the fiber to produce beneficial fatty acids. For this reason, the fiber content of foods does not count toward your carb limit. 

What Are Calories?

Almost every food has calories, even foods with little to no carbohydrates. Calories are measurable units of energy you obtain from your food or drink. You can find calorie counts on food items. Various apps, trackers, and wearables allow you to monitor how many calories you’re burning with certain activities and how many calories you’re taking in when you eat.

Processed and sugary foods tend to have more calories than natural healthy whole foods. However, some low-calorie foods like diet soda can be problematic for your metabolism, not provide any nutritional value, and impede your weight loss goals. Just because a food is high-calorie doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy, and vice versa. For example, a can of full-fat coconut milk provides nutritional value and around 700 calories, but it could certainly fit into a healthy diet for some people, particularly those consuming more healthy fats on a ketogenic diet. Olive oil provides 119 calories per tablespoon, and one avocado provides 322 calories. Healthy fats tend to have a high calorie count.

How many calories you require to function each day depends on several factors, such as your: 

  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Weight loss goals 

Each of the three primary macronutrients in your diet contains calories:

  • Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
  • Fat: 9 calories per gram
  • Protein: 4 calories per gram 

Fiber may differ in calorie content depending on if it’s insoluble or soluble fiber.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend men intake around 2,000 to 3,000 calories daily, and women should intake around 1,600 to 2,000 calories daily. People who are more active may require more calories. Other factors affect caloric requirements, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, and illness. [4] [5]

Empty-calorie foods have little to no nutritional value and are usually high in sugar and refined carbs. Alcoholic drinks are considered empty calories.

Counting Calories for Weight Loss

People usually count calories to help them lose weight with the idea that if you eat more calories than the energy you’re expending, those calories could be stored as body fat and contribute to weight gain over time. 

It’s important you consume enough calories to give you the necessary energy to get through your day. Because people’s metabolisms differ and because metabolisms are complex and the reactions involved do not take place in a vacuum, losing weight is not always as simple using more calories than you consume. Not all calories are created equal, and the same amount of calories in a sugary candy bar, a head of broccoli, and a steak won’t have the same metabolic effect on your body.

What’s the Difference Between Carbs and Calories?

People count calories and carbs for many of the same reasons, most commonly for weight loss. Reducing carbohydrates on a ketogenic diet has been proven to improve metabolism and help with weight loss. 

While both calories and carbs can be measured or tracked, there’s a clear difference between them. Carbs are a macronutrient found in some foods, and calories are measurable units of energy found in almost all foods.

Some keto dieters don’t want to count calories or carbs. Instead, they take a more lax approach, dropping their carb intake without monitoring too closely, using a tracker, or adding up their net carb intake each day. Others enjoy counting carbs and using trackers to help achieve their goals.

Keto dieters usually lose weight without having to count calories. The keto diet tends to be satiating and often results in a naturally lower calorie count per day (as well as keeping your body in fat-burning mode). However, keeping track of calories can help speed up weight loss, especially since keto involves a high amount of healthy fats, which are high in calories.

Steph Green is a content writer specializing in and passionate about healthcare, wellness, and nutrition. Steph has worked with marketing agencies, written medical books for doctors like ‘Untangling the Web of Dysfunction,’ and her poetry book ‘Words that Might Mean Something.’ In 2016, after four years of struggling with her own health problems and painful autoimmune disease, Steph developed a life-changing and extensive knowledge of keto, nutrition, and natural medicine. She continues on her healing journey and enjoys helping others along the way.



Yu, D., Shu, X-O., Xiang, Y-B., Yang, G., Gao, Y-T., Zheng, W., & Zhang, X. (2013). Dietary carbohydrates, refined grains, glycemic load, and risk of coronary heart disease in Chinese adults. Am J Epidemiol, DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwt178


Greenwood, D. C., Threapleton, D. E., Evans, C. E. L., Cleghorn, C. L., Nykjaer, C., Woodhead, C., & Burley, V. J. (2013). Glycemic index, glycemic load, carbohydrates, and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, DOI: 10.2337/dc13-0325


Chandley-Laney, P. C., Morrison, S. A., Goree, L. L. T., Ellis, A., Casazza, K., Desmond R., & Gower, B. A. (2014). Return of hunger following a relatively high carbohydrate breakfast is associated with earlier recorded glucose peak and nadir. Appetite, DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.04.031


United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025


United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Nutrition Data. FoodData Central (usda.gov)

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