Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
So you’re trying to cut your carbs but still not getting into ketosis or seeing benefits. Many people these days opt for low-carb, but they might not realize what their daily limit of carbs looks like. And when you’re eating a ketogenic diet, there’s more to it than simply low-carb — we must understand what that means and which foods to limit or eliminate. Without the right information, we can avoid consuming “hidden carbs” that slide under the radar.
What are Hidden Carbs?
In order to stay in ketosis on the keto diet, you typically don’t want to go above 30 grams of carbs per day. This can vary per person, but we’ll use it here as a rule of thumb. It can be surprising just how quickly that number adds up if you aren’t careful or used to watching for sneaky carbs.
You might be surprised just how many everyday foods, even whole foods, contain close to the keto carb limit just in one serving. To help you get used to intuitively knowing the amount of carbs in foods, we’ll be talking about some of these items and their carb counts.
Hidden Carbs in Common Foods
Note that any carb amounts listed below are the net carbs found in each food, meaning non-digestible carbs like fiber are not counted. Net carbs are what matter towards the total per day.
Popular drinks and snacks are the worst offenders, even those masquerading as “healthy.” Let’s take a look:
- Coca Cola, 12 oz (1 can) — 35g
- Starbucks latte, grande size with 2% milk — 19g
- Red Bull, 12 oz (1 can) — 40g
- Naked Green Machine Smoothie, 1 15 oz bottle — 63g
- Hershey bar, 1 bar — 25g
- M&Ms, regular-sized bag — 33g
- Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 1 package — 22g
- Haribo Gummy Bears, 5 oz package — 33g
Cereals (even the “healthy” ones):
- Cheerios, 1 cup — 17g
- Shredded Wheat, 1 cup — 39g
- Special K Original, 1 cup — 22g
- GoLean Crunch, 1 cup — 20g
Health bars (they might look awesome on the front label, but when you check out the nutrition label…):
- Clif Bar, Chocolate Chip, 1 bar — 41g
- Lenny & Larry’s Chocolate Chip cookies, 1 cookie — 40g
- Kind Bar, Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate, 1 bar — 13g
Hopefully, this helps demonstrate just how much snack foods can derail your daily carbs. The more processed, the higher chance of carbs being a problem.
Also watch out for cheeses, coffee creamers, cheese spreads, sour creams, ricotta, cream cheeses, and yogurts typically have carbs (a container of Dannon flavored yogurt has 30g carbs), especially the lower fat versions. Go for the healthy versions like raw cream or cheeses, grass-fed butter, full-fat yogurt (with NO added sugar, which has about 6 carb grams per container), kefir or Perfect Keto Bars.
Dressings can be full of sugars and added carbs, not to mention hydrogenated and even rancid oils. Even though we know the whole low-fat craze is outdated, there are still “low-fat” and “low-calorie” products out there touting themselves as healthy. Don’t buy into it; they have to use something to replace the satisfying nature of fat, and that’s sugar. This includes low-fat or reduced-fat condiments like low-fat peanut butters and “light” dressings.
Also keep in mind that a typical serving size on labels is two tablespoons, which is less than most people use and easy to go over. Always check labels, and opt for homemade dressings like oils and vinegars, spices or herbs, avocado, etc., or full-fat healthy bottled dressings, such as these from Primal Kitchen, as much as possible.
Gravies and Sauces
Most regular sauces and gravies use flours and sugars for flavor and thickness, so be careful with these, especially when eating out. And that coleslaw with its cabbage and mayonnaise might seem like a good idea, but a lot of side dishes include added sugar along with the fat.
It’s best to avoid dishes like this altogether and make your own low-carb versions at home.
Yes, nuts can definitely be part of a ketogenic diet, but not all nuts are created equal. Watch out for these higher-carb nuts (carbs per 1 oz serving):
- Chestnuts — 13.6g
- Cashews — 8.4g
- Pistachios — 5.8g
- Peanuts — 3.8g
Stick with the fattier, lower-carb varieties and don’t overdo it on the amounts. (For more info on keto-friendly nuts and to keep them low-carb, see this post.) Also, make sure all your choices are raw and aren’t candied or sweetened in any way, and avoid trail mixes that combine nuts with dried fruits.
Most fruits are best avoided completely on the keto diet. That’s because as little as a handful can blow your carb count for the day. See here:
- Banana, medium-sized — 25 g
- Apple, medium-sized — 18g
- Orange, medium-sized — 15g
- Grapes, 1 cup — 15g
- Cherries, ½ cup — 9g
- Kiwi, medium-sized — 8g
- Blueberries, ½ cup — 7g
- Strawberries, ½ cup — 6g
- Raspberries, ½ cup — 3g
- Blackberries, ½ cup — 4g
As you can see, berries are best for staying low-carb, but it’s best to only use them for special occasions like in desserts. Although a half-cup serving might not seem too bad, that’s really only about a handful, and most people eat more than that in one sitting. See this post to see visual serving sizes of some of these fruits.
Now, let’s be clear: we need our veggies. It’s important to get those precious micronutrients found in vegetables. That being said, not all vegetables are created equally. Vegetables that grow below ground, especially starchy vegetables, are typically higher in carbs:
- Potato, 1 large baked — 54g
- Potatoes, 1 cup mashed — 34g
- Hash browns, 1 cup — 50g
- Sweet potato, 1 medium baked — 20g
- Sweet potatoes, 1 cup mashed — 55g
- Yams, 1 medium-large baked — 28g
- Parsnips, 1 cup sliced — 17g
All it takes is a serving or less of potatoes to meet (or almost double!) your carbs for the day. Now, in comparison, let’s look at some more more keto-friendly veggie options:
- Spinach, 1 cup raw — 0.4g
- Cauliflower, 1 cup raw — 3g
- Broccoli, 1 cup raw — 4g
- Kale, 1 cup raw — 6g
- Cucumber, 1 cup chopped — 4g
- Zucchini, 1 cup raw — 3g
Bottom line is: vegetables are healthy and good for us; we just need to focus on the low-carb keto varieties and understand the wide differences in carb amounts.
Yes, some processed meats contain hidden carbs too. Deli meats, ham, meatloaf, bacon, and sausage often have sugar and starch added, so always read the labels. Avoid those labelled as “low-fat” or “ultra-lean” as they typically have more junk added.
Canned fish products may also have starches or sugars added into their sauces.
For more foods that might seem low-carb-friendly but aren’t good for keto, see our list of foods to avoid on the keto diet.
Calculating Net Carbs
Besides getting familiar with how to estimate the average amount of carbs in a food, we must be able to easily count net carbs in labeled foods. All you have to do is find the total grams of carbohydrates, the total grams of fiber, and subtract fiber from carbs. Use this number towards your daily keto carb allotment.
Even whole foods and packaged foods claiming to be “healthy” contain carbs that we must avoid when going keto. Understanding what a daily limit of carbs looks like in relation to everyday foods can make carb counting on a ketogenic diet much easier. And remember, the best way to know exactly what you’re consuming is by eating whole, fresh keto foods and cooking at home as much as possible. Your health will thank you.