A common question repeated by my friends, family and clients who try keto (or are ‘keto-curious’) is: “There’s carbs in that?!” But aren’t those good carbs? I try not to visibly wince, for I used to believe the very same! While it’s widely known processed foods are carb-bombs, what is surprising to many is the staples we’ve been raised to view as “healthy” have a considerably high amount of carbohydrate – and this is of particular concern on keto. Hidden carbs are what we want to “root out” today.
You’ll be surprised how easily they are replaced with keto-friendly alternatives. Let’s go.
“I couldn’t believe ______ has that many carbs in it!”Every Low Carb / Keto-er in history.
To be clear: I’m not saying all carbohydrates should be avoided. What’s important to understand is in the context of a ketogenic diet, you’ve gotta lean in pretty hard to that low carb threshold of 20g net or less. If you aren’t incorporating any fasting, it will be difficult to be below the keto carb magic number and trigger your metabolism to produce ketones & become fat-fueled.
Simply put: don’t languish in a medium-carb “no-man’s land” just above an optimal carb intake level. If you expect to see results and feel great, you’ve got to root out and ensure those hidden carbs aren’t sabotaging you!
Unsure about whether you are in ketosis or not? Check out my post on 9 tell-tale signs of being in ketosis for some ideas. Now, how do you ensure you get those carbs way down? It’s a matter of understanding your foods just a little better, shifting your old paradigms and breaking free of assumptions potentially holding you back.
Make Simple Substitutions
One of my favourite low-carb / keto sites (DietDoctor.com) has amazing visual food guides that helps answer these questions. Just stick to the “green” side of each category and you’ll be burning fat in no time!
Note: There are some foods that require whole-sale changes. No, substituting whole-grain flour in your pizza dough isn’t going to make it keto-friendly, for instance. For ideas on how to take some favourite staples and keto-fy them, check out my recipe page!
Not everybody is going to be able to drop all of the foods they are used to eating all at once… and some ‘legacy’ foods will stick around while you go keto longer than others.
I figured I’d try to list out common culprits most will believe healthy, but unaware they are big sources of carbs and recommend a few low carb alternatives. If you personally might try substituting the lower carb option in and find little discomfort (or even better – total indifference) then making the low carb choice moving forward will give you an advantage on your journey to sustainable fat loss through keto.
Let’s Root a few Hidden Carbs out of your Day
Many a keto-er (ok maybe just me?) has spent hours stymied in the dairy case of their grocer. Don’t believe me? Next time, spot the person comparing various containers, and ask if they are trying keto. This person is fervently calculating carb totals between products whose serving sizes don’t quite match… it’s enough to cause paralysis by analysis.
The take-home here is start by gaining awareness of your favourite items’ carb content, and then whey (ha!) how these foods might fit in to your daily carb budget. There’s no right answer, and I believe variety is key to long-term compliance. If substituting higher fat dairy can cut a few carbs from the day, try it!
And one last thing worth saying here – don’t let the higher calories from fat stop you! Remember, fat is your friend on keto and you’ll enjoy find healthy fats whey (ha-ha!) better.
The most common “wait – what?!” high carb food I hear about is milk. But milk’s healthy, right? Skim is the best choice, right?
No guys, check yourselves! An 8-ounce serving of skim milk contains 12 grams of carbs! These hidden carbs come from lactose, and will shut your ketosis down quicker than you can say moo.
As a guiding principle, drinking your calories (and carbs) is never a satiating practice and leaves you wanting ‘more’. Instead of drinking a glass of milk, opt for water or seltzer.
If you use milk to lighten up your coffee or tea, consider making the “decadent” switch to heavy cream (delicious, high in healthy fat, near zero carbs!). If milk is your staple for smoothies or thickening sauces, try stirring in high fat yogurt or cream cheese instead.
Yogurt vs Cheese
Yogurt is only borderline acceptable. I’m not talking about your vanilla-sweetened or other flavoured / fruit-at-the-bottom varieties (those are definitely off the table). I’m talking about your plain, Greek or Skyr variety high fat yogurts. These still come in close to 8-10g per serving.
I go for a higher-fat cottage cheese to be much more satiating, with about half (5g) the carbs of yogurt. Or, for even lower carbs go with some ricotta (particularly useful in cooking). With these lower carb choices, you can toss in a few low carb berries / nuts (we’re getting to those below!) to have a delicious keto parfait treat, without the glucose hit.
Here’s some great info on carbs in cheese. The long story is – most cheese is just fine in terms of adhering to a low-carb way of eating… but they aren’t zero. Some staples for the Italian household are parmigiana, bocconcini, mozzarella.
Produce – Picking the Right Fruits & Veggies
Yes, you can have plenty of fresh produce on keto. It’s encouraged, and nothing is better for delivering some added fat to your diet than butter-sauteed veggies. Now what we can’t afford is to assume bananas, grapes, apples and potatoes are equally keto as peppers, berries and cabbage. This is where strategic selection will help you balance carbs vs food variety, and not tip your carb counts outside of the ‘keto range’.
When it comes to fruit and veg, I’ve found it’s best to experiment here and there. See if anything drives cravings, or truly helps you achieve a sense of well-being and ketosis. A little bit of butternut squash isn’t “super” keto, but maybe it hits the spot, satisfies you, and keeps you on track. Then, go for it on occassion.
Right off the bat, we are swapping the sequence! Take your “fruits and veggies” and swap the pair to “veggies and fruits“. Making that first mental switch in your produce priority list will get you a step ahead right off the bat!
A top tip I’d suggest – get used to using chopped cabbage, leafy greens or mushrooms as the vegetable ‘base’ for your dishes. These will taste amazing and are keto-safe alternatives to potatoes and rice.
Let’s dedicate a moment to our beloved & iconic Italian vegetable – the tomatoe. I love these, always have. However, they must be considered for their carb content (3g / serving). While not high, in vast quantities like in a Caprese salad, they can add up quick. If you can limit yourself to just 1-2 servings, by all means indulge. But if you are dousing dishes in liberal quantities of tomatoe sauce, ensure you are realistic with how many carbs you credit to the meal.
For a quick same-page comparison, check out the ‘below ground’ vegetables and how much more carbs are in them… best to avoid or severely restrict these!
Nature’s candy, fruits used to be only seasonally available. Now, the sweetest tropical pineapples, mangoes, apples and grapes can be found year-long at our local grocer. Take a step back, recognize these fruits should be enjoyed as desserts and not supplemental to a meal. Remember, as far as carbs from the plant world you will go farther focusing on getting your veggies in first, and using fruits as an occasional treat (not a routine indulgence if possible).
Fruit is a great way to manage a sweet tooth: I love berries & whipped cream as an after-dinner dessert. For perspective on what a shift that has been… in my family, a massive fruit tray used to come out after our carb-heavy meals. It would contain a mountain of beautifully arranged, figs, nectarines, oranges, cherries, persimmons… each one sweeter than the last.
But also on these behemoth Mount Fruitilangaro platters were keto favourites like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and honeydew / cantaloupe melons… which were delicious too.
The fact we can enjoy so much variety of low-carb fruits on keto is kind of surprising. It’s just a matter of strategically picking the lower carb options – and you won’t miss those apples at all! Excluding berries which are generally OK on Keto, check out where your seemingly innocent fruits rank on the carb spectrum below:
Nuts are dangerous, and easy to overeat, so they should always should be consumed moderation. I never really had a ‘favourite’ nut, so just “blacklisting” a few of the higher carb varieties was easy… and keeping myself to macadamia, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, brazil nuts and walnuts offers enough variety that I never feel deprived. Cashews and pistachios … those are tough to let go though, I won’t lie! 🙂
You can see now, I hope that sprinkling some low carb nuts & berries atop some low carb cottage cheese or yogurt to make a parfait is possible on keto… but also with some quick math… you are using up more than half of your 20g net carbs. Just be aware of that choice and plan your other meals accordingly.
Some of the sneakiest carbs of all are condiments or dressings. Sometimes a perfectly ordered keto meal could be sabotaged by forgetting to ask the waiter to hold the “special sauce” please!
Never assume what is in front of you hasn’t been tainted with some kind of sugar. If you haven’t assembled the meal yourself, there could be a carby surprise.
Are those pickles sweet or dill? If only visually there was a way to tell! So…take a bite and… no! Tainted!
Is that… honey mustard!? Aww, wish there was yellow, dijon or mayo around.
Sure, a little ketchup won’t be the end of your keto diet (salsa or hot sauce are great substitutes!). Or some ‘light’ ranch dressing that has been spiked with sugar (just go for low-fat instead!).
These little things could add up, preventing you from feeling optimal. So – stay vigilant!
Hidden Carbs Could Make or Break your Keto Diet
When is all boils down to it’s core, these are things that some might call nit-picky. I would agree, if you are making this level of optimization to your diet, it’s very likely you are in ketosis and burning fat for fuel most of the time. These tips are meant to keep you on the straight and narrow path for longer periods of time, without being blindsided by something you hadn’t considered “a big deal”.
The tolerance for carbs in the keto diet is so low (<20g / day net) that rooting out 3-4 grams per meal is pretty significant. If those hidden carbs had been ‘slipping in’ routinely, you might notice not feeling optimal after a meal. So, do some sleuthing and I hope this provides some value! Till next time, ciao!