Following a low-carb or keto diet seems pretty easy: You simply avoid high-carb foods and stick to foods that are allowed. But in our modern world, hidden carbs seem to lurk around every corner, even in foods considered “safe.”
And depending on your personal carb tolerance, they may greatly reduce your ability to meet goals for weight loss or maintenance, blood sugar control, and/or staying in ketosis. Read on to learn how to identify and minimize your intake of these potential keto saboteurs.
1. Meat and Poultry
Overall, meat is a great low-carb option and a staple food for many keto dieters. However, a few types do provide a fair amount of carbs. It's a good idea to be aware of which forms of meat and poultry aren't considered “free” from a carb standpoint.
Unlike most organ meats, liver typically provides carbs. This makes sense, since an animal's liver stores glucose (sugar), just as like a human's does.
Although chicken liver and turkey liver contain less than 1 gram of carb per serving, many other types of liver have more than twice that amount.
Here are the carb counts for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of cooked liver from different animals:
- Beef liver: 5.1 grams ( 1)
- Goose liver pate: 4.7 grams ( 2)
- Pork liver: 3.8 grams ( 3)
- Veal liver: 3.8 grams ( 4)
Keep in mind that organ meats, especially liver, are very nutritious and needn't be avoided, as long as you account for the carbs they contain.
Generally speaking, fresh meats are more nutritious than processed types like sausage, bacon, and sandwich meat. However, eating processed meat occasionally is enjoyable and likely safe for most people.
On the other hand, carb counts for processed meats can range from zero all the way up to 9 grams per serving. Therefore, it's important to read ingredients lists on any packaged meats you consume to check for sugar, starch, and other carb sources. Importantly, even when ingredients are similar, carb content may vary significantly among brands.
For instance, one brand of pork sausage contains 8 grams of carb per 100 grams ( 5), whereas the same amount of another brand contains 1.4 grams of carb ( 6). Additionally, many sausages contain gluten, which most low-carbers prefer to avoid.
However, if you read the ingredients list, you'll see that they both contain sugar, MSG, and preservatives – none of which you probably wish to consume.
If your aim is to live a healthy keto lifestyle, stick to brands that don't use sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or questionable additives.
Because it's well known for being a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, seafood may seem like an ideal choice for keto and low-carb dieters. While this is true of finfish and certain shellfish like shrimp and lobster, many shellfish in the mollusk category contain more carbs than you may be aware of – even if it is fresh, steamed and doesn't contain any other ingredients.
In fact, depending on your personal carb goal, a large platter of assorted seafood could push you over your daily limit.
Here are the average carb counts for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) cooked of various mollusks:
- Mussels: 7.4 grams ( 7)
- Eastern Oysters: 5.5 grams ( 8)
- Pacific Oysters: 9.9 grams ( 9)
- Scallops: 5.4 grams ( 10)
- Clams: 5.1 grams ( 11)
And although plain crab meat is essentially carb free, look out for imitation crab, which is often used in seafood salads – especially at buffets – because it's much less expensive than crab. Also known as surimi, imitation crab contains fish mixed with sugar, potato starch, tapioca starch, and/or cornstarch, which may result in a grand total of 7 grams of carb per serving 100-gram serving ( 12).
Seafood is undeniably tasty and nutritious, and there's no reason to avoid mollusks altogether if you like them, provided you're aware of how many carbs they contribute to your daily tally.
3. Low-Carb Sweeteners
Most natural low-carb sweeteners and artificial sweeteners are carb free or nearly so in their pure form. Indeed, stevia, monk fruit, sucralose, aspartame, and others don't contain any carbs in liquid form when the sweetener itself is the only ingredient.
However, in granulated or powdered form, they are often combined with dextrose or maltodextrin – forms of sugar – to maintain optimal texture and prevent caking.
Each packet of Splenda (sucralose) ( 13), Equal (aspartame) ( 14), or Truvia (stevia) ( 15) contains about 1 gram of carb from maltodextrin. If you only use a couple of packets per day, this may not amount to much. On the other hand, if you use a couple of packets in your coffee, iced tea, and other beverages throughout the day, your carb intake from sweeteners alone may add up to 10 grams or more. Clearly, this could impact your ability to stay within your ideal carb range.
Fortunately, there are many sugar-free, carb-free options you can replace those packets with, which can be found in this guide to keto and low-carb sweeteners. Not only will the natural sweeteners help you stay within your daily carb limit, but they're healthier than artificial sweeteners, which contain chemicals that have been linked to health problems.
Condiments add flavor and zest to foods, often with very few carbs. For instance, most of the carbs in herbs and spices are at least 50% fiber. Additionally, because they're quite potent, usually only small amounts are added to food.
However, there are other condiments that may seem “safe,” yet contain ingredients that drive up their carb counts, which could potentially cause problems when used in typical amounts.
Here are the average carb amounts in 1 Tablespoon (15-20 ml) of popular condiments:
- Seasoned rice vinegar: 4 grams ( 16); includes sugar and high fructose corn syrup
- Balsamic vinegar: 3 grams ( 17); includes grape juice
- White balsamic vinegar: 10 grams ( 18); includes sugar and fruit puree
- Ketchup: 5 grams ( 19); includes high fructose corn syrup
- BBQ sauce: 12 grams ( 20); includes high fructose corn syrup and molasses
- Sriracha chili sauce: 3 grams ( 21); includes sugar, some also include honey
- Teriyaki sauce: 3 to 9 grams ( 22); includes sugar and modified food starch
Fortunately, there are alternative condiments that contain few if any carbs:
- Apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and plain rice vinegar are all carb free.
- Fish sauce
- Tamari which is also gluten-free, coconut aminos, or plain soy sauce can be used in place of teriyaki sauce, with carb-free sweetener added, if needed.
- You can make your own sugar-free ketchup, BBQ sauce, sriracha sauce, and other homemade basics such as dressings, sauces and seasonings. Here's a list of condiments you can make at home.
5. Restaurant Food
Restaurant dining can be a landmine for low-carb and keto dieters. Simply avoiding rice, bread, potatoes, and other high-carb foods isn't always enough, because restaurants often add sugar, starches, and flavor enhancers that are high in carbs. Indeed, many may be lurking in your presumably keto-friendly meal of meat and vegetables.
For breakfast, you may feel confident when ordering scrambled eggs or an omelet with meat and vegetables. However, some of the larger restaurant chains in the US are notorious for adding pancake batter to their eggs to create a fluffier end result.
Fortunately, restaurants are required to provide information regarding ingredients due to potential allergens. The best practice is to always request that foods be prepared without any added sugar, starch, preservatives, or other carb-containing ingredients.
The KetoDiet App includes a restaurant database with complete nutrition facts and will help you make the right choices when eating out!
6. "Low-Carb" and "Sugar-Free" Products
Products marketed as “low-carb” or “sugar-free” may be surprisingly high in net (digestible) carbs.
Many of these products contain sweeteners and other ingredients that are capable of raising blood sugar and insulin levels, thereby signaling your liver to produce fewer ketones.
For instance, several popular low-carb bars are sweetened with maltitol or sorbitol, sugar alcohols that is partially broken down into glucose in the small intestine and absorbed into the bloodstream ( 23, 24).
Therefore, a bar marketed as having “2 grams of net carb” may end up affecting you as though it had several times this amount. Sugar-free gum and mints are typically sweetened with sugar alcohols that can be partially absorbed into your system. Therefore, if you consume a lot of these items throughout the day, you may be taking in more carbs than you're aware of.
In addition, many people have reported that maltitol causes several unpleasant side effects, such as gas, bloating, and loose stools.
Although naturally occurring fiber in foods isn't digested and absorbed, certain types of processed fiber can be.
Isomaltooligosaccharides (IMOs) are made from maltose, which is a simple sugar like glucose. Although IMOs were previously believed to bypass digestion and absorption in the small intestine, research has shown that they are partially absorbed like sugar and other non-fiber carbs ( 25, 26). However, the extent to which IMOs affect blood sugar and ketone levels seems to vary from person to person. Therefore, it's best to test your own levels to see how you respond.
Although some food manufacturers have replaced IMOs with other fibers that don't raise blood sugar or jeopardize ketosis, they can still be found in many low-carb and sugar-free products.
Again, whenever purchasing processed foods, it's very important to read the ingredients label carefully in order to identify hidden carb sources.
7. Medications and Supplements
Finally, hidden carbs can come from non-food sources, such as medications and nutrition supplements like vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
Although it probably comes as no surprise that flavored cough syrups or throat lozenges contain sugar, there are other medications that don't have a sweet taste yet contain cornstarch. For a naturally carb-free alternative for the common cold, try drinking hot peppermint tea or warm water mixed with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. In addition, gargling with salt water can be very effective for relieving a sore throat.
The same holds true for vitamins and other supplements. Or course, the amount of cornstarch and other carb sources in each tablet is very small. If you don't take many medications or supplements, your carb intake from these sources is unlikely to make much of an impact on your progress.
However, if you take multiple medicines, vitamins, or other supplements and are sticking faithfully to your daily carb limit yet not experiencing the blood sugar or weight loss results you're after, it's worth looking at the ingredients lists of these items to see if they contain hidden carbs. If so, you may want to replace them with brands that don't have carb-containing additives.
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Take Home Message
Hidden carbs aren't much of a concern for people who eat a standard diet. However, for those on keto diets, they definitely can be.
Although consuming less than five “hidden” carbs per day probably won't affect your progress much, it's clear that a few carbs here and there can easily add up to far more over the course of the day.
If your goal is to remain within a very-low-carb range for weight loss or diabetes management, these hidden carbs may cause problems with stalls, carb cravings, or failure to meet blood sugar targets.
Ultimately, it's best to eat fresh food that you prepare yourself so you can control the ingredients. However, this may not be possible or practical all the time. Therefore, reading labels for carb sources, requesting that food be prepared without added sugar or starch at restaurants, and being mindful of how many carbs are found in certain “safe” foods is your best bet for staying on track with your keto or low-carb lifestyle.
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