Are Your So-Called “Low Carb Foods” Actually Low in Carbs?
Start Your Journey To Ketosis
The definition of a healthy diet has certainly changed over the last few decades. Low carb foods were not always seen as an integral part of a healthy diet. Not too long ago, eating a healthy diet meant consuming foods from each of the USDA’s six basic food groups, with an emphasis on high-carb foods like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. In order to stay fit, a so-called healthy diet needed only to be paired with regular exercise; if you wanted to lose weight, you simply needed to expend more calories than you consumed.
Adhering to the pyramid sounded simple enough, right? Maybe, but the method proved ineffective for many, as has been evidenced by the obesity epidemic that has continued to grow in the United States in the decades following the USDA food pyramid.
A Noted Shift Toward Low Carb Diets
The world of nutritional science, however, began to change in 1992 when Dr. Robert Atkins released an updated version of his book, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, and it became a New York Times Bestseller. The book introduced its readers to the now mainstream concept of a low-carb diet.
Many people find success in low-carb diets because they produce fast results without the feeling of hunger. This happens for a number of reasons.
For starters, when you restrict carbohydrates and seek low carb foods, your diet becomes rich in the remaining two macronutrients (macros)—fat and protein—by default. Both fat and protein take longer to digest, which keeps you feeling fuller longer. Additional protein also helps build muscles, which raises your metabolism.
Additionally, low-carb diets stabilize blood sugar, which in turn stabilizes insulin, the body’s hormone that makes you feel hungry.
A diet that doesn’t leave your stomach growling sounds like a dream to anyone who has tried the traditional method of caloric deficit, but low-carb dieters tend to be further encouraged when they see weight loss results within the first few weeks of their new diet and realize how easy it is to follow. Following a simple formula of consuming low-carb foods and avoiding high-carb foods often naturally results in consuming fewer calories.
The Ketogenic Diet
As discussed in the bestselling book Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore and Dr. Eric Westman, M.D., the ketogenic diet is an extension of Atkins’ work. It goes beyond the traditional low-carb diet and prescribes a specific ratio of macros in order to shift mechanisms in the body from using carbohydrates for fuel to using fat for fuel. While macros should be calculated on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration your current weight, activity level and goals, a general guideline is to craft a diet that consists of 75 percent fat, 25 percent protein, and five percent carbohydrates, not to exceed 50 grams of carbohydrates. Moore even recommends as few as 20 grams of carbohydrates for some keto dieters, but stops short of recommending no-carb diets. It is believed that the lower your carb intake, the more quick and dramatic your results will be. A simple Google search will score thousands upon thousands of weight loss success stories achieved through the keto diet.
Hidden Carbs: The Enemy to the Keto Diet
Those who do not get results often come to discover that they have fallen prey to one of the many sources of hidden carbohydrates. We all know that sugary drinks like soda and juice, and carb-loaded mountains of bread and pasta are problematic to a low-carb diet, but did you know that one medium-sized carrot has 6 grams of carbs? If you have a 20 gram carbohydrate limit, that means you expend nearly a third of your carbohydrates for the day eating just one carrot.
The unfortunate truth is that carbohydrates are lurking in all sorts of sneaky places. Reading labels is always the best policy, but knowing where to look for hidden carbs will give you a leg up on your weight loss journey.
If you are including these foods in your diet, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your efforts to reach ketosis—the state in which the body starts burning fat for energy.
Here is a list of foods with hidden carbs:
- Sauces and condiments
- Milk substitutes
- Processed meats
- Some protein shakes and bars
- “No sugar added” foods
- Vitamins and some other supplements
- Root Vegetables
Sauces and condiments
Salad dressings, barbecue sauce, and many Asian-inspired sauces like teriyaki sauce are some of the worst offenders when it comes to added and hidden carbs. Add that to the carbs found in the vegetables they cover, and it is very easy to max out your carb limit for the day in just one meal. A seemingly low carb food like a salad or stir fry can quickly add plenty of carbs, especially when paired with the wrong dressing or sauce. Honey mustard, french dressing, and balsamic vinaigrettes aren’t exactly the most keto-friendly low carb foods. Ranch and other cream-based dressings, interestingly, are often lower in carbs. The best way to insure you are eating low carb dressings is to make them yourself. If you don’t have time for anything elaborate, try dressing your salads with a simple mixture of olive oil and lemon juice.
Most of us have peeled back the film on the top of one of those little plastic cups and stirred up the syrupy, brightly-colored, fruit concoction on the bottom thinking that we were really doing our body a favor. That just isn’t the case, however, if your goal is to eat low carb foods. In fact, many flavored yogurts contain more grams of sugar than everyone’s favorite little frosting-filled, chocolate-covered, chocolate snack cake, the Ding Dong.
Even plain yogurt will cost you a large portion of your allotted carbohydrate macro for the day. Just a half cup of plain, full-fat greek yogurt will cost you 15 grams of carbohydrates. This is because the milk used to make yogurt contains a natural sugar called lactose.
Manufacturers of most milk substitutes nearly always add sugar to their products to make them more palatable for their consumers. This includes almond and other nut milks, soy milk, coconut milk and lactose-free products. The good news is that these manufacturers are also responding to the growing portion of the population that enjoys some form of a low carb diet by offering “no sugar added” versions of these products. Always check labels when buying milk substitutes; if you are vigilant, it is often possible to find milk substitutes that are not just low carb, but a no-carb food.
Smoothies are often marketed as healthy meal replacements. This is so ingrained in our perception of nutrition that many health clubs even offer smoothie bars complete with all kinds of additives, from extra protein to workout recovery formulas and electrolytes.
The truth is, smoothies are packed full of opportunities to add sugar including yogurt and milk substitutes along with fruit and other additives.
Even smoothies based on green, leafy vegetables like spinach or kale are often mixed with sugar-laden ingredients like apple juice.
Your best bet for a keto-friendly smoothie is to make it at home with ingredients like green vegetables, berries, no or low carb protein powders and added fats like avocado or heavy whipping cream.
You’re probably confused by this one. Afterall, bacon should be a no carb food, right? Well, in theory, yes, it should. But, in practice in today’s world of highly-processed “everything,” that often isn’t the case. Many bacon producers add sugar or maple syrup. A lot of keto-friendly bacon will be labeled as “paleo” or “sugar free,” but always check the label for things like dextrose or any kind of syrup.
Other processed meats
Bacon is not the only meat that you may assume is a no carb food only to be surprised at the additives. Deli meats, hot dogs, and sausages should all be suspect and subject to label reading. Not only do some of these meats have added sugar, many also contain starches that act as binders.
Some protein shakes and bars
Manufacturers of protein shakes have been searching for ways to make them taste better since the invention of dissolvable protein powders in the 1950s. One of the easiest and most common ways to do this is to add sugar. Even many “natural” protein bars contain dates for flavoring, which are extremely high in naturally-occuring sugar. Luckily, there are now many delicious low-carb options on the market if you just look for them. And, of course, there is always the option of making your own keto-friendly shake at home.
Some people overlook the sugar found in fruit because it is naturally-occurring, but the reality is that when it comes to the keto diet, all carbs are carbs, and fruit is an easy way to tally up your daily carb limit in a hurry. Having said that, not all fruit is created equally. Some fruits are much higher in carbs than others. Generally speaking, berries are the lowest in sugar and therefore the easiest to incorporate into a keto lifestyle in moderation. Tropical fruits like bananas and oranges along with melons top the other end of the spectrum, and should be mostly avoided. Since fruit doesn’t come with a nutrition label to spell out its composition, you can use one of a variety of online resources like My Fitness Pal to check carb and sugar content.
“No sugar added” foods
“No sugar added” does not mean “no sugar,” and it certainly doesn’t mean low carb. Many “no sugar added” already have plenty of sugar from naturally occuring sources like honey, maple syrup, or dates. In addition to these pre-existing sugars, many “no sugar added” foods also contain high amounts of flour or grain.
It’s common knowledge that nuts are high in protein, so that makes us think of them as low carb foods, but that isn’t actually the case, and many are even quite high in carbohydrates. Cashews, for example, pack a whopping 27 grams of carbs per 3.5 ounce serving, while pecans, which are lower in carbs than many other nuts, still contain approximately 14.5 grams of carbs for the same amount. Nuts are not considered completely off limits in the keto diet, but it is wise to eat them sparingly in the context of any low carb lifestyle.
Vitamins and some other supplements
It’s always a good idea to take vitamins, but this is especially important if you find yourself skimping on vegetables while on a ketogenic diet. It’s important to be aware, though, that the binders and other ingredients that form the tablets may contain a few carbs. Unless you are taking vitamins in gummy form, those carb-laden ingredients are fairly minimal. That said, it’s still a good idea to check so that you can account for these carbs in your daily macro totals.
Wraps are often marketed as healthier options or even as a low carb food, and it can be easy to trick your brain into thinking this may be true. After all, the tortillas used in wraps are much thinner than a slice of bread. The truth, however, is that tortillas are thinner not because there is less flour or grains but because they are unleavened, meaning there is no yeast in them. Cunning marketers may even present their product as a “veggie wrap” made from something like spinach, which is one of the most low carb of all vegetables. If you look at the ingredients list, however, you will commonly find that the primary ingredient is still some sort of flour, and the carb count is still quite high. While you could spend hours searching for truly low carb wraps at your local grocer, it’s unlikely that you will find one without flour. The easiest solution here is to use lettuce rather than store-bought wraps.
Because corn is a vegetable, many people may assume it is safe, but one ear of yellow corn contains about 25 grams of carbs.That’s more than some keto dieters’ daily allowance, and would require them to consume only no carb foods the rest of the day to stay near their macros. This is because corn is comprised mostly of starch.
Potatoes are famous for being the undoing of many low carb dieters and their cravings, but did you know that most other root vegetables are also packed with carbs? Like corn, root vegetables tend to be made up of mostly starches. Sweet potatoes tend to be thought of as a good alternative to regular potatoes because of the extra fiber, but they do still contain large amounts of carbohydrates, making them poor choices for a ketogenic diet. Some keto dieters will make sparing use of root vegetables like parsnips or turnips, but even those must be used in moderation because they can add up quickly.
Finding Keto Friendly Foods
Finding and eliminating hidden carbohydrates is an important key to weight loss success on a ketogenic diet. That said, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Not all no carb foods are created equal, as there are certain factors that make some no carb foods more keto friendly than others. One of these key factors is the type of fat found in each food.
Keto dieters are famous for their butter consumption. They load everything from steaks to their morning coffee—yes, you read that right, coffee—with grass fed butter. Why the emphasis on grass fed butter? The answer is Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs).
PUFAs are found in two common forms: Omega 6 and Omega 3. In Body By Science by John R. Little and Doug McGuff, the authors explain that Omega 6 PUFAs are found in higher concentrations in grain-fed meat and dairy products, while Omega 3 PUFAs are more prevalent in grass-fed meat and dairy products.
This is an important distinction because Omega 6 PUFAs can interfere with insulin sensitivity and cause inflammation, both of which will thwart your progress on a ketogenic diet.
Other keto dieters eat things like free-range organic eggs and cheese, and consume snacks that contain low carb seeds and generally avoid foods like beans that are found in a high carb diet.
Stay Disciplined and Achieve Ketosis
It may seem overwhelming at first, but the key to mastering the ketogenic diet and reaching ketosis is as simple as researching your food before putting it into your body. In most cases, this means being religious about reading labels or pulling out your phone for a quick Google search while at the grocery store.
In the end, your body will thank you. Once you begin making ketones your primary source of energy—a state known as “ketosis”—you will start to really reap the rewards of a ketogenic diet. In addition to weight loss, the ketogenic diet may also bring additional energy and mental clarity. The time to start is now, so get to work!