What Are Hidden Carbs? And How to Spot Them
"Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care." - Buddha
A lot of people nowadays seem to be jumping on the low-carb bandwagon without doing diligent research beforehand, and then wonder why their diet isn’t working. Reality is that going low-carb involves much than giving up bread and pasta. Carbs are ubiquitous in food, and they're probably lurking in some of your favorite "low-carb" foods.
However, it's not always just the dieter's fault. Food manufacturers will often leave out the exact amounts of carbs in their products. They may round-up carb numbers to make it seem like their products have fewer carbs than they actually have. Some common foods are also labeled zero-carb when, in reality, they indeed do have a small amount of carbs.
If you're someone on a low-carb plan like Atkins or keto and are not seeing much progress, it could be the hidden carbs. But what are these sneaky nutrients exactly and where are they hiding? Below I talk more about that and offer some tips to help you track your carb intake.
What Are Hidden Carbs?
Hidden carbs are those carbs that are underestimated in foods. Foods like bread, potatoes, and sugar-sweetened beverages are well-known high-carb foods, so their carb content is quite obvious. On the other hand, soy, dairy, seafood, alcoholic drinks, and some condiments are not talked about as carb-containing foods despite having some carbs in them. In other words, their carb content isn't as obvious or clear as in the first group.
Take food labeling for example. Many products labeled "zero-carb" actually have carbs in them because companies are allowed to round down nutritional information on packaging. Labels on heavy cream, for instance, list 0g of carbohydrates in a serving (1 tablespoon). But if you take 1 cup of heavy cream, the carb content jumps to over 6g.
If you eat a bunch of these foods without accounting for their hidden carb content, you will go over your carb content pretty quickly. The numbers can quickly add up if you're not being careful, and your chances of succeeding on low-carb diets can take a hit. If you want to learn more about carbs on a keto diet, check out this article.
Total Carbs vs Net Carbs
On low-carb diets like keto or Atkins, it's important to know the difference between total and net carbs when tracking your carb intake. Keto dieters generally classify carbs into three groups:
These are all carbs in a food item, including their sugars, starches, and fiber. Total carbs include both the natural sugars in food and added sugars.
Dietary fiber refers to indigestible carbohydrates. Examples of dietary fiber include cellulose, beta glucan, and pectin. Since your body cannot digest these, they won't impact your blood sugar and ketosis.
Net carbs are total carbs minus the fiber. On low-carb diets, you need to limit only these carbs since they are the ones that impact blood glucose levels and can interfere with ketosis. To calculate net carbs in a food, you simply subtract the grams of fiber from the grams of total carbs.
Knowing which carbs to look out for will help you avoid any confusion and stay within your macros limit. Many keto dieters end up avoiding foods they believe are high-carb when, in fact, these foods have a high fiber content. Another thing to point out is that fiber is important for good digestion and there's evidence it protects against colon cancer, acid reflux, intestinal ulcers, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases.
Besides the sneaky carbs hiding in your food, there are also ingredients pretending to be what they're not. You'll find these tricksters in processed foods labeled low-carb or sugar-free. You've probably guessed by now that we're talking about sugar substitutes.
Sugar substitutes are natural and synthetic sweeteners that are used to replace sugar in your diet. These ingredients are generally considered healthier than plain sugar because they don't have as strong of an impact on blood glucose levels and they're typically lower in calories, some even being zero-calorie.
But if you're being fooled by labels or think that all sweeteners are created equal, you just may be unknowingly going over your carb limit. Not all sweeteners are created equal, and you need to know which ones are hiding their true nature behind a "low-carb" label:
A sugar alcohol that has the same sweetness as table sugar and almost the same number of calories. While sugar provides 4 calories per gram, maltitol provides just around 2-3 calories in the same amount. This is great for people trying to lower their calorie and sugar intake, but those on keto may want to think twice.
Often marketed as a low-calorie, zero-carb sweetener, Splenda may actually contain enough carbs to kick you out of ketosis. Splenda is a brand of sucralose sweetener that is sometimes fluffed with maltodextrin, a food additive with a glycemic index ranging between 85 and 100. If you use too much of this sweetener, you risk being kicked out of ketosis.
Foods with Hidden Carbs
Now that you know which carbs are hiding in food, you'll also want to know what foods contain them. Here are some foods to look out for.
Nuts are perfectly fine to eat on a keto diet as long as you're doing it moderately. Besides being rich in fats and protein, all nuts contain some amount of carbohydrates. The best keto nuts include walnuts, macadamia nuts, and Brazil nuts, which are over 60% fat and provide less than 5g net carbs in a 100g serving. On the other hand, cashew nuts have almost 30g net carbs in 100g, so choose your nuts wisely.
Most meat contains absolutely no carbohydrates and lots of fat and protein, which is why it is so popular among keto dieters. Liver, however, contains a small amount of carbohydrates that you should count into your daily carb limit. One slice of beef liver (68g) contains around 3.5g carbohydrates.
Fish and most seafood are also carb-free; however, oysters, clams, and mussels contain quite a bit of carbs in them. You can either avoid eating them or count their carb content. Another seafood you want to be careful with is surimi or imitation crab meat, which has 6g net carbs in a 3oz serving.
When you think about carbs, plant food like grains, legumes, and vegetables spring to mind. Most people don't really associate animal food like milk and yogurt with carbs. But most dairy does contain carbohydrates in the form of milk sugars, notably lactose. Low-fat dairy usually has more lactose than high-fat dairy. Also, watch out for some yogurts since some may contain sugar and cornstarch.
Ketchup, balsamic vinegar, and BBQ sauce are all high in carbohydrates. Pesto, salsa, and mustard are low in carbs, but you still need to consider how they contribute to your daily limit. And if you're in the habit of adding bouillon cubes to all your meals, make sure to count the 2.3g net carbs in one cube.
6. Processed meats
Fresh and minimally processed meat is best for the keto diet and your overall health. Processed meat like sausages, hot dogs, salami, and pate contain more carbs than fresh products. Some products also require sugar during processing. Bacon is an exception and gets a thumbs up on a keto diet.
How to Spot Hidden Carbs
Knowing how to spot hidden carbs will help you stay within your carb limit. But that's easier said than done. There are, however, some tips and tricks used by many keto dieters that definitely help. Consider the following to keep an eye on those sneaky carbs:
1. Dieting apps
Apps like MyFitnessPal and Carb Manager make macros tracking easy. While they may not be 100% accurate all the time, they come pretty close.
2. Reading labels
Double check labels for both total carbs and fiber. Also, see if the nutrition facts apply to the whole packaging or only to the serving size. It's also a good idea to compare the info on food packaging to nutrition on the USDA Food Composition Databases.
3. Limit processed food
Processed food is more likely to contain hidden carbs from added sugars, starches, and other glucose-raising ingredients. Focus on getting all your nutrients from fresh produce, meat, eggs, and high-fat dairy.
Staying on track on a keto diet can be tough given all the carbs lurking in almost every food item. Luckily, most hidden carbs are present in food in only small amounts. As long as you're focusing on the big offenders (wheat, sugar, legumes, etc.), you'll probably stay within your keto macros.
But for extra caution, do check the nutrition facts of most food your eating, especially food you're eating habitually. Apps can make this process easier but visiting online nutrition databases also helps. And if you're already in ketosis and doing great on low-carb diets, then definitely don't beat yourself up over carbs hiding in your favourite food.