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Surprising high-carb foods you should avoid or limit in your diet

6 minute read • September 28, 2022
family eating

If you’ve been following a low-carb or keto diet for a while, you’ve probably been steering clear of the most obvious sources of sugar and starch since your very first days of lower carb eating. Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cookies, cake, pastries, cereal, and all those other sweet and starchy foods have been off your menu for a while.

But what about hidden carbs? Are there some lurking in places you don’t expect? Let’s look at some surprisingly high-carb foods.

Be a label detective 

dairy lowfat milk

First things first: don’t take anything for granted when following a low-carb or keto diet. You’d be amazed at where carbs sneak in. If you’re not careful, you might be unknowingly sabotaging your efforts.  

There’s a pretty simple solution to finding unexpected carbs: read labels. Always. This is especially important if you’re buying something you’ve never had before, but even when purchasing your old standbys, take a look at the ingredient list once in a while. Products get reformulated sometimes and the manufacturers don’t always advertise this.

So don’t assume that the box or bag you’ve been buying for years has exactly the same ingredients it’s always had in the past. 

And here’s a pro tip for when you’re scrutinizing labels: in the U.S., if the sugar content of a food is 0.5 grams or fewer per serving, it can be labeled as zero. Granted, half a gram of sugar is a minuscule amount, but remember, that’s per serving.

If the food in question is something you’re having multiple servings of every day, those fractions of a gram can add up, especially if you have a medical condition that requires you to stick to an ultra-strict ketogenic diet rather than a more flexible low-carb approach. 

Foods to watch out for

Condiments

condiments by the beach

Don’t ruin your low-carb diet by drowning your nearly zero-carb meats, eggs, and seafood in a lake of sugar-laden sauce. Most condiments pack a high-carb punch, so be careful to buy sugar-free versions of ketchup and barbecue sauce. (If you’re trying to stay under 20-30 grams of carbs a day for example, you don’t want to blow 15 grams on two measly tablespoons of BBQ sauce!)

Watch out for salad dressings, too. You’ll have no problem finding dressings with just 1-2 grams of carbohydrate per serving, but there are others—sweet ones, like thousand island, French, Catalina, and sweet vinaigrettes—that can be as high as 10-12 grams per serving.

Be careful when buying sauces, marinades, and dry rubs. Always check the ingredient list—many are loaded with brown sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and other carbs. Check the carb count per serving and be realistic about how many servings you would likely have. 

Low-carb snacks

eating a snack

High-carb snack foods like pretzels, crackers, and chips have probably been out of your life for a while, but what about some common go-to low-carb snacks that might not be quite as low-carb as you think? Things that come to mind here are nuts, nut butters, beef jerky, and lunch meats. 

Nuts

peanuts

Nuts are a popular snack on keto diets, and nut butters are a luxurious treat. Most nuts are low in carbs, but go easy on peanuts and cashews. One ounce of peanuts has about 5 grams of carbohydrate and cashews have a bit more: around 8 grams. For most people, these won’t make or break your carbs for the day, but they can if you need to keep things especially low.

Nut and seed butters tend to wreak a bit of havoc, partly from the carbs, but also from the fat. Let’s face it—nut butters are delicious, so it’s easy to go overboard with them. (Cashew and sunflower seed butters, I’m lookin’ at you!) If you include these in your low-carb diet, do yourself a favor and portion them out and then close the jar and put it away. Sitting down with the jar and a spoon is asking for trouble.

(Overdoing concentrated fats—especially when combined with more carbohydrate than you might realize—is one of the most common reasons for stalled weight loss on keto.) 

Beef jerky

beef jerky

And what about beef jerky? If you think jerky is just strips of meat with seasoning, think again. Most jerky is practically embalmed with sugar, brown sugar, and corn syrup solids. Fortunately, there are some zero-sugar and lower sugar jerkies available.

As always, just read labels before buying. If you’re in a pinch and you can’t find zero sugar jerky, original and peppered flavors are typically lower in sugar compared to varieties with sweeter seasoning, like teriyaki or sweet & spicy.

Lunchmeat

roast beef

Lunchmeat—a.k.a. cold cuts—can be an ideal low-carb snack or meal, or it can be the inadvertent undoing of your efforts. Stick to the ones you know are likely to be lowest in sugar (roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, salami, roasted turkey), and stay away from ones where sugar is front and center, like brown sugar ham or honey baked turkey.

The cuts that are lowest in sugar might be cured with dextrose or other carbohydrates but the amount remaining in the finished product is almost negligible. (The same goes for bacon, unless you buy something like “maple cured” bacon that’s meant to be sweeter. You can find uncured bacon and zero sugar bacon at most stores, but even the conventional stuff typically has a negligible amount of sugar.) 

Keto treats

keto snack

There are pros and cons to keto diets becoming so popular in the last few years. Something positive and negative is the availability of lower-carb versions of things that were once totally off-limits on keto–ice cream, granola, cereal, bread, and cookies.

These are lower in carbs than their full-sugar and starchy counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they’re low enough for you to consume on a regular basis and still get the results you likely want. 

Some people can include these substitutes for their favorite high-carb foods and still reach their weight loss goals, control their blood sugar, or achieve whatever else they’re aiming for.

For others, these products are common causes for stalled weight loss or lackluster improvements in health issues. (If you’re one of the latter, consider ditching these items for a while and count total carbs instead of net. It’s a small change that will have an outsized impact on how things go for you.)

Medicine

medicine syrup

Here’s a very unexpected source of carbs: medicine! Next time you have a cold or cough, be sure to buy sugar-free cough drops or cough syrup. Regular varieties are often high in sugar.

This isn’t a problem for most people since these things aren’t consumed in large quantities on a regular basis, but they could be an issue if you have a medical need to keep your carbs ultra-low all the time. 

Summing Up

woman leaning against counter

Don’t let carbs in unexpected places derail you from making progress on keto. Always read labels and be realistic about your food habits. (Will you have one serving or six?)

You might be able to have some higher carb foods once in a while, but if it’s a slippery slope for you and these things are going to lead you to several days or weeks off-plan, you’re better off staying strict and being diligent about all carbs—even the ones that sometimes fly under the radar.

A low-carb food you can trust

shake

Looking to make your low-carb diet easier? Then turn to a meal you can trust: Keto Chow! Keto Chow is a meal replacement shake that has 1/3 of your daily recommended nutrients, and it only has around 1 g. of net carbs! Choose from over 30 flavors of delicious shakes or soup mixes.

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