Many foods contain a significant number of carbohydrate grams earning them the nickname “carbs.” But not all carbs are created equal. Some are beneficial for health and weight loss, and some are not. In this blog post, I share which carbs to avoid and the carbs that work on a low carb or keto diet.
List of Worst to Best Carbs for Low Carb and Keto Dieter
Omitted Entirely: Quick-Digesting Carbs (spike insulin & block fat loss)
- Sugar (a.k.a. corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, etc.)
- Soda and drinks sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup
- Refined foods (i.e., bread, cereal, pasta, muffins, snack bars, chips, cookies, cakes, candies, keto-friendly snacks, etc.)
- Fast foods (i.e., sandwich buns, fries, and breaded chicken nuggets)
Limited Intake on a Low Carb (Not Keto) Diet: Starchy Foods
- Beans (i.e., black beans, cannellini, beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.)
- Starchy Vegetables (corn, white and sweet potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash, etc.)
- Grains (i.e., oatmeal, rice, quinoa, etc.)
Limited Intake on Both Diets (Low Carb and Keto): Foods with a Good Fiber-to-Carb Ratio
- Low Carb Fruits
- Keto Choices: avocados, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, coconuts, and lemons
- Low-Carb Choices: all the above + melons, peaches, grapefruit, oranges, and apples
- Nuts (raw or lightly toasted, i.e., Brazil nuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and walnuts)
- Seeds (raw or lightly toasted, i.e., chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds)
Allowed on Both Diets (Low Carb and Keto): Naturally Low Carb Foods
- Non-Starchy Vegetables (i.e., salad greens, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini)
Which Carbs Work On a Low Carb and Keto Diet? [Video]
When it comes to controlling your weight, carbs run the gamut. They can either destroy or improve your chances of losing weight. The degree of processing and the food’s starch content have a lot to do with determining the difference.
The basic rule of thumb is that the more processed and refined a food is, the quicker it will be absorbed into your system. These quick-digesting foods cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin that blocks fat loss and leaves you feeling out of control of hunger.
As far as food choices go, it’s hard to find a more processed food than sugar. Added sugars go by many names, including table sugar, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Regardless of its name, at one time, it was a plant.
For instance, table sugar typically comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. However, it no longer looks like a plant because it has been highly refined, which strips away the fiber and nutrients needed to slow digestion. Therefore, we’ll give sugar the dubious title of the worst carbohydrate for low carb dieters.
Quick-Digesting Carbs: Omitted Entirely
Progressing from the worst to the best carbs for low carb and keto dieters, we have sugar, soda, and drinks sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup. When these sweetened drinks are swallowed, there is very little digestion that must take place. You may get a quick energy boost, but you’ll also put the brakes on fat loss, so it’s no surprise that these sugary drinks are off-limits for low carb and keto dieters. Both diets also omit refined foods, including bread, cereal, pasta, muffins, snack bars, chips, cookies, cakes, and candies.
And, if weight loss is your goal, use caution with “keto-friendly foods” made with sugar substitutes and “healthy” flours such as coconut flour and almond flour. Do they have more value than snacks made with white flour and sugar? It’s possible, but these sweet treats are calorie-dense and keep your cravings for sweets alive, making it challenging to lose weight.
Fast foods get their own separate placement on our list. While it is possible to find low-carb foods at a fast-food restaurant, most of their menus are filled with quick-digesting carbs, like sandwich buns, fries, and breaded chicken nuggets that will quickly sabotage your weight loss efforts.
There’s no question that the foods I’ve mentioned so far are off-limits for any healthy dieter. However, natural, unprocessed carbohydrates can be worked into a low carb diet OR keto diet. I make the distinction because these are two different diets. I have a blog post on the difference between a low carb and keto diet that can help you determine which one is right for you.
But generally, a low carb diet allows you to consume between 50 to 125 total grams of carbs per day, whereas a keto diet restricts carb intake to less than 50 grams for the day.
Starchy Foods: Limited Intake on a Low Carb (Not Keto) Diet
Because someone following a low carb (not keto) diet has some liberty in the number of carbs they can consume, they can include limited amounts of starchy foods into their diet. Starchy foods include things like beans, potatoes, corn, rice, and oats. We do not classify these foods as low carb foods.
However, because they digest slowly and provide nutrients, they can be added to keep your low carb diet interesting. How much you can have and still lose weight depends on your metabolism. Some of you will find that you can enjoy a serving of starchy foods each day, while others will find that once a week works best.
To make this more practical, if you are on a keto diet, you’ll need to skip the beans, potatoes, corn, rice, and oats. However, if you’re on a low carb diet, you may find that you can enjoy a weekday bowl of oatmeal (~30g of carbs) and a weekend baked potato (~36g) without disrupting your progress.
Foods with a Good Fiber-to-Carb Ratio: Limited Intake on Both Diets (Low Carb and Keto)
Even though a low carb dieter has more wiggle room when it comes to their carb intake than a keto dieter, some fun carbs can be worked into both diets, namely low-carb fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Fruit contains fiber and other nutrients that slow digestion and absorption of the natural sugars it contains. However, because of these natural sugars, keto dieters will be happiest with their results if they limit their fruit intake to those with the lowest net carb content, which are avocados, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, coconuts, and lemons. Low carb dieters can enjoy more varieties by adding fruits like melons, peaches, grapefruit, oranges, and apples.
Nuts and seeds are packed with vitamins and minerals and have a hunger-satisfying mix of fats, protein, and carbs. The nuts that are lowest in carbs are Brazil nuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and walnuts, and good seed choices include chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Even though fruit, nuts, and seeds have their place in a low-carb diet, you want to watch out for trail mix. These packaged snack foods often contain dried fruit and nuts roasted in vegetable or seed oils. When fruit is dried, its carbohydrate content skyrockets, and the oils that are used degrade during processing, setting your body up for inflammation.
Nuts can be eaten raw or lightly toasted in the oven to avoid unhealthy oils. Even if you make your own trail mix, keep in mind that these snack foods are calorie-dense and easy to overeat, so you’ll want to monitor your portion size.
Naturally Low Carb Foods: Allowed on Both Diets (Low Carb and Keto)
Portion size becomes less of an issue for non-starchy vegetables, which are the best carbs for both low carb and keto dieters. Non-starchy vegetables are naturally low in carbohydrates and have a high fiber-to-carb ratio, slowing their digestion and absorption.
Despite being low in carbs and calories, they are high in hunger-satisfying volume. Non-starchy vegetables include things like salad greens, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini. So, consider adding a daily salad and keeping dinner interesting with a versatile non-starchy vegetable like cauliflower that can be steamed, riced, or mashed.
Whether you are keto or low carb, there are carbohydrates that you can enjoy. If you’re a keto dieter, you’ll want to focus on non-starchy vegetables with limited amounts of fruits, nuts, and seeds. If you’re a low carb dieter, you can enjoy the same carbs as well as a wider variety of fruits and limited amounts of beans, starchy vegetables, and grains.
If you’d like a concise list of appropriate food choices, you can download my list of 100 low carb foods here.