By Dana Leigh Smith
Just because you're avoiding pasta, bread, and rice, it doesn't mean your diet isn't carb-heavy...
"I'd like the fried chicken sandwich with extra ketchup," my friend Bobby said to our waitress the other day. "But hold the bun. And can I get coleslaw instead of fries, please? I'm doing this low-carb thing..."
As the waitress nodded, I involuntarily bit my tongue—figuratively at first, but then literally. You know, just to make sure the disapproving words in my head didn't accidently slip out since people hate the food police. Which is why I let my friend enjoy his lunch—and then went home to write this article and emailed him the link.
See, tons of dieters turn to low-carb plans each year—but few people do much research beforehand. Most people just give up pasta, bread, and rice, dial back a bit on fruit, and call it a day. If only it was that easy. Carbs aren't just lurking in the obvious places; they're hiding out in seemingly innocent places, too, like coleslaw, ketchup, and yes, even certain types of chicken.
Are you making the same diet pitfalls as Bobby? Read on to discover more than 20 sneaky sources of carbs that may be throwing you off course with your low-carb plan. And for even more hidden sources of the starchy stuff, don't miss these 20 Surprising Foods With More Carbs Than a Bowl of Pasta.
1. Reduced-Fat Foods
You're on a low-carb diet, which means you're probably eating a lot of veggies. But if you've been adding low-fat dressing to your greens or spreading low-fat peanut butter on celery sticks, you're probably taking in more carbs that you intended. To maintain the flavor of these products, food manufacturers typically replace fat with sugar, which increases the carb count. Opt for the full-fat versions instead, and just dial back on your portions a bit to lower the calorie count. Foods that contain heart-healthy fat like nut butters and oil not only contain fewer carbs, they've been shown to improve cholesterol levels and aid weight loss efforts, too—so they definitely get the green light! To discover the best fatty foods for your body, don't miss our special report, The 20 Best Full-Fat Foods for Weight Loss.
2. Liquid Eggs
Cracking eggs into a pan to make breakfast takes, like, two seconds. So, there's really no reason to buy the stuff that comes in a container. Second, eggs that come pre-cracked in a carton are gross. Not only do they contain things that aren't typically found in an egg like xanthan gum, they're spiked with high fructose corn syrup—typically masquerading under the name "maltodextrin." Whether HFCS is worse than plain ol' table sugar has long been a contentious issue, but one thing is for sure: it's a source of sugar and carbs. If you're trying to cut back on the starchy stuff, you're better off sticking to real eggs. Not sure which carton to spend your money on? Our report on the 26 Things You Need To Know Before Buying A Carton of Eggs can help!
The bulk of your plate is filled with broccoli, spinach, and steak, but if you smother your entire plate with gravy, there's a good a chance your meal is far from low-carb. To produce an appetizing product, many sauces and gravies are spiked with flour or sugar, which are both potent sources of carbs. Make low-carb versions of your favorite flavor enhancers at home or read labels carefully to ensure what you're buying isn't serving up more carbs than you bargained for.
The same suggestion holds true for condiments. You know the "extra ketchup" Bobby asked to be added to his chicken patty? Carb bomb! Each tablespoon of ketchup contains about five grams of carbs or about a quarter of what someone going through the first phase of the Atkins diet is told to consume. And who really sticks to a single tablespoon!? No one I know. Things like honey mustard aren't any better, either. A small packet of the stuff from a fast food joint has about 11 grams of carbs, primarily all from sugar. Want to use healthy-ish condiments in moderation? Fine. Just know that the calories, sugar, and carbs have the power to add up quickly!
A typical container of plain Greek yogurt has six grams of carbs, all from the naturally occurring dairy sugars, making it a solid breakfast or snack pick for anyone watching their intake. Fruit flavored yogurt is another story, though. While Chobani's flavored containers hold about 18 grams of carbs, Dannon's have about 30! Stick with the plain stuff and add flavor and texture by sprinkling in cinnamon, slivered almonds, or chopped starfruit, which has less than two grams of carbs in a quarter-cup. Worried about sugar—even the naturally-occurring kind? Bookmark our exclusive list of the 25 Popular Fruits—Ranked by Sugar Content!
Sure, 95 percent of the dish is made with shredded vegetables and mayo, but the remaining five percent is all sugar. As a result, a half-cup of coleslaw has about 14 grams of carbs and 11 grams of the sweet stuff. Sorry to break it to you, Bobby, but that wasn't the best request. You should have swapped your spuds for salad instead.
7. No-Sugar-Added Foods
Some people wrongly assume that sugar-free foods are also lower in carbs than their sweeter counterparts—which isn't case. Many of these foods substitute the white granular stuff with sugar alcohols, which are heavy on carbs. And if the food product is also made with milk and flour, you'll get some carbs from there, too. For example, Pillsbury Moist Supreme Premium Classic Yellow Cake Mix carries 0.76 grams of carbs per gram of mix—the exact same amount as the brand's Moist Supreme Classic Yellow Sugar-Free Premium Cake Mix. Our suggestion: stick with the real deal—which won't play as many tricks on your metabolism—and limit your portion size. We are talking about cake, after all!
8. Peanut Butter
While all natural nut butters contain little more than nuts and salt, the ultra-processed kind is filled with all sorts of questionable ingredients ranging from artery-clogging hydrogenated oils to carb-laden added sugar. Thanks to its added sugar content, Peter Pan reduced fat creamy peanut butter has a whopping 14 grams of carbs per two-tablespoon serving, while JIF creamy has eight grams for the same serving size. By contrast, Smuckers all-natural peanut butter—which is made solely with salt and nuts—has just six grams of carbs per serving. If you're trying to consume fewer carbs, the winner here is clear. Not sure how your favorite container measures up to the others in the market? Don't miss the definitive guide to The 36 Top Peanut Butters—Ranked!
9. Balsamic Oil
Many people think of things like dressing and balsamic oil as "free foods," but that's not always the case. Kraft Classic Catalina Dressing, for example, has nine grams of carbs in a two-tablespoon serving. Marzetti's sweet and sour fat-free dressing has 12 grams in the same serving size! (That's nearly as much as you'd find in a slice of bread.) Even plain old balsamic has three grams of carbs in a tablespoon. Bet ya didn't see what one coming, did you? Many dressings can be very sneaky...like these 16 Salad Dressings Worse Than Chocolate Syrup.
10. Fried Food
Chicken may be a zero-carb food, but that all changes the second breading and a deep fryer are thrown into the mix. For example, there are 11 grams of carbs in four-piece chicken nugget order from McDonalds. And even if you hold the bun, a fried chicken sandwich from Burger King still carries 10 grams of carbs. Those numbers expand even more the second you step into a sit-down restaurant and get an entrée. P.F. Chang's orange chicken has 92 grams of carbs and their sesame chicken has a staggering 102 grams of carbs; it why it's one of these 35 Restaurant Foods With Crazy-High Amounts of Sugar!
Nuts are great for low-carb dieters. They're crunchy and pair nicely in terms of flavor with other low-carb staples like string cheese and blueberries. (Atkins suggests sticking to ¼ cup serving.) But not all nuts are created equally in terms of their carb content. While pecans have just under four grams of carbs per ounce, peanuts have 4.6 grams, and almonds have six grams. Cashews, the most carb-stocked of the lot, carries nine grams of carbs per ounce.
Few people think of milk as a carb, but since it contains lactose (the naturally occurring sugar in dairy products), it's actually teeming with the stuff. A cup of 1% or 2% milk has about 12 grams of carbs, while whole milk has 11 grams.
13. Milk Alternatives
Milk alternatives derived from things like nuts and hemp may be great options for those who are lactose-intolerant or vegan, but not all cartons are low-carb, so it's super important to read the label. A cup of Ripple Original Unsweetened Pea Milk is totally void of carbs—as is Silk Unsweetened Coconut Milk. But Cashew Dream Unsweetened has three grams and those numbers increase six-fold the second you buy a flavored or sweetened carton. Pacific Foods Hemp Milk, for example, which is sweetened with brown rice syrup, has 20 grams of carbs per cup, and a cup of Almond Breeze chocolate milk has 22 grams!
If you've started to take a multivitamin to make up for nutrients your low-carb plan may be lacking, you're definitely on the right track. But beware: some vitamins and supplements are sneaky sources of sugar and artificial sweeteners, which means they contain carbs, too. Sundown Naturals Calcium Plus Vitamin D3 dietary supplement, for example, has 3.5 grams of carbs a pop—and the recommended serving size is two. That means you'll be downing 7 grams of carbs even before you sit down to breakfast. Whomp, whomp! And even if your vitamin doesn't provide specific nutrition information, be aware that it may contain some carbs if it's flavored, coated, or chewable. Discover 21 Things You Don't Know About Vitamins before you pop your next pills.
What does one wrap have in common with two slices of Ezekiel bread? Besides the fact that they house all your yummy lunch ingredients? They both contain about 30 grams of carbs! Translation: If you typically go with wraps because you think they're healthier than bread, you've got things all wrong. Not only do they contain the same number of carbs, wraps are far more calorie- and fat-filled than a standard sammy base. The reason: In order for the tortilla to stay malleable, manufacturers add fat, often in the form of soybean oil and hydrogenated oils. Looking for some lunch inspiration that aligns with your goals? Don't miss these 20 Low Carb Recipes You'll Love.
16. Sun-Dried Tomato
Sprinkling some sun-dried tomatoes onto your salad or in your omelet may seem innocent enough, but a half-cup the densely-sweet veggie has 13 grams of carbs—or about what you'd find in four Kit Kat Minis. Sure, the sugars are healthier than those found in the chocolate, but when you're simply counting carbs and taking them for face value, quality of sugars and carbs is rarely a factor.
On a traditional food pyramid, protein-rich beans fall in the same category as beef, chicken, and eggs, which tricks people into thinking they're low-carb. However, just a quarter cup of chickpeas has 30 grams of carbs and black beans carry about the same amount. Can they help protect you from heart disease and cancer? Sure. But if you're looking to lower your carb count, you should be mindful of how much you're eating.
18. Protein Bars
By now, you should realize that high-protein isn't always synonymous with low-carb—and protein bars are no exception. Many nutrition bars, especially those aimed toward athletes and gym-goers who need energy to power through sprints and squats, are purposely jam-packed with carbs.
Generally speaking, veggies are lower in carbs than fruit. But there are always exceptions to this rule. Case in point: corn. An ear the sweet yellow vegetable has about 17 grams of carbs, and that number shoots up to 41 grams for a ⅓ cup of the stuff cut off the cob.
20. Dried Soup Mixes
Cellulose is an anti-caking agent made from plant fiber wood pulp (ick) and it's commonly used in everything from cheese to dried soup mixes. Since it's a source of fiber, it naturally carries carbs. Keep an eye out for it listed on your go-to groceries to ensure you're not getting an extra dose of starch where you least expect it.
21. Root Vegetables
Most people think of veggies as carb-free. But like corn, starchy root veggies are a major exception to this rule. Carrots have 12 grams of carbs per cup, beets have 13 grams, and Jerusalem artichokes have 26 grams. Be sure to factor these numbers into your overall intake to ensure you don't go over your target allotment!
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