The Best and Worst High-Carb Foods

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The carbohydrates your body uses for energy fall roughly into two categories: sugars and starches. Once they hit your bloodstream, both sugar and starch get broken down into simple sugars. While fiber is also a carbohydrate, it’s not broken down during digestion (one reason why it keeps you feeling fuller longer and is beneficial to gut health).

If you’re following a low-carb eating plan, you may want to cut back on your intake of sugary and starchy foods. Here’s a list of high-carb foods to consider limiting if you’re on a low-carb diet, as well as potential substitutions for some of the most popular carb-rich foods.

High-Sugar Foods and Drinks

Foods high in sugar are broken down quickly, giving your body a fast energy boost. However, this also rapidly effects your blood sugar levels. While obvious sources of sugar like candy are known to provide a quick energy burst (and perhaps a crash), many foods have added or hidden sugars.

Beverages

Soft drinks, flavored coffee drinks, and bottled iced tea are known to be high-sugar beverages that also add calories. But you may not realize how many carbs these drinks can add to your daily intake.

  • A 12-ounce can of regular Coke has 140 calories and 39 grams of carbs (all of which come from added sugar).
  • A 16-ounce (grande) Starbucks latte with whole milk has 230 calories, 19 grams of carbs, and 18 grams of sugar. If you have pumps of flavored syrup added, know the carb count for each flavor. For example, 1 pump of mocha syrup adds around 25 calories, 6 grams of carbs, and 4.8 grams of sugar.
  • One bottle of Teavana Sparkling Blackberry Lime Green Tea has 80 calories, 20 grams of carbs, and 19 grams of sugar (all of which are added sugars).

Fruit Juice

While generally touted as a healthy choice, most fruit juices are very high in sugar and may not have much added nutritional value compared to the fruit itself.

For example, one 8-ounce cup of Mott’s 100% Apple Juice has 30 grams of carbs, 28 grams of added sugar, and no fiber. One medium apple has 25 grams of carbs, 18 grams of sugar, and 4.4 grams of fiber.

Other high-carb fruit juices include:

  • Orange juice (1 cup): 25 grams
  • Cranberry juice (1 cup): 31 grams
  • Grape juice (1 cup): 37 grams

Some lower-carb options for juice include those made from low-carb root vegetables, such as celery.

One 8-ounce cup of celery juice has just 9 grams of carbs.

Additionally, some bottled fruit and vegetable juices, such as the V8 brand, can also be lower in carbs if you stick to the 8-ounce serving size. One small cup of V8 has 10 grams of carbs and is lower in sugar than other brands of bottled juice.

However, the choice can be high in salt. If you’re on a low-sodium diet, you might want to skip V8 or look for the low-sodium version.

Alcohol

If you consume alcohol, it’s important to remember that many popular drinks add calories, carbs, and sugar—especially mixed drinks made with soda, concentrated juice, liqueurs, or syrups.

  • While a shot of most spirits straight or on the rocks won’t add any carbs, keep in mind that when you add mixers, you add carbs: Rum and coke, for example, has 39 grams of carbs.
  • Liqueurs are another high-carb add-on to alcoholic drinks. Amaretto has 25 grams of carbs per 1.5 ounces. However, amaretto is one taste you can achieve using sugar-free syrups (such as Torani).
  • Cocktails, for example, can be very high in sugar and therefore carbs. Swapping traditional mixers for low-carb, sugar-free alternatives can help reduce the drink’s carb content. For example, instead of using peppermint schnapps for holiday cocktails, add a drop or two of peppermint extract.
  • While the carbs in a bottle of beer will vary by brand, the average for most beers is around 12 grams per bottle. As a general rule, the heavier the beer, the more carbs it has (such as stouts, porters, and black lagers).

Alternatives

While plain water is the best choice, you can also look for sugar-free beverages like flavored sparkling water. Or, try adding sliced fruit or sprigs of mint to your water bottle to give still water a kick.

Fruit

Fruit is part of a healthy diet; whether fresh or frozen, it contains beneficial fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, many fruits, such as ripe bananas and figs, are naturally high in sugar. The sugar content can also be influenced by how the fruit is packaged and prepared.

Many dried fruits have added sugar—especially when part of granola bars and trail mix.

While dried fruit contains natural sugar, it’s very concentrated. Dates, for example, are relatively low in carbs (6.2 grams per cup) but have 93 grams of sugar.

Some dried fruits with the most carbs include:

Another potential source of carbs is canned fruit and fruit cocktail cups. These cups are often packed in a sugar syrup (including high-fructose corn syrup) though you can usually get varieties that are not.

Consider making your own fruit cups, salads, and parfaits at home.

If you’re watching your sugar and carb intake, focus on including low-carb fruits (such as berries and summer fruits, like peaches) in your diet.

Dairy

Milk, whether whole, low-fat or fat-free, has about 12 grams of carbs and sugar. The sugar in milk is primarily in the form of lactose. Unless you’re lactose intolerant, this natural sugar is fine to include in your diet.

With other dairy products, such as sweetened yogurt, flavored milk, and ice cream, be aware of added sugars, which can influence the total carb count. 

Keep in mind that when ice cream is advertised as “healthy” or yogurts are labeled “low-fat” and “fat-free,” these products will often have added sugar to replace the taste and consistency provided by fat.

When you’re focused on reducing your carb intake, you’ll need to balance the nutritional benefits of milk products (such as being a great source of calcium) with their carb load.

If you’re lactose intolerant or prefer non-dairy alternatives such as almond and coconut milk, choose unsweetened ones.

Desserts

Cake, ice cream, candy, and other sweets are obvious sources of sugar. Since sweets taste good but aren’t especially filling (or don’t satisfy your hunger for very long), it’s easy to lose sight of portions, and therefore, carbs.

You don’t have to completely avoid your favorite treats, even on a low-carb diet. In addition to keeping an eye on portions and having sweets in moderation, there are plenty of recipes and swaps you can use for low-carb desserts.

Candy Bars, Energy Bars, and Granola Bars

If you’re looking for something quick, cheap, and convenient to grab when you’re at work or on the road, you might be tempted to reach for a candy bar. While some are advertised as healthy, all candy bars are inherently high in sugar—even those sweetened with dried fruit and made with whole grains.

Added and Hidden Sugar

Manufacturers know most people are naturally inclined to find sweet-tasting foods more pleasing to our palate. Many products you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being sweet often have sugar added to them: everything from breakfast cereal to ketchup and salad dressings.

When you’re shopping or eating out, it’s important to know that the food industry has come up with many creative ways to say "sugar." If you’re trying to cut down on sugar, check the nutrition label on everything you buy. Added sugars are sometimes hidden sugars—that is, sugar by another name.

If ingredients like molasses, honey, agave, barley malt, or maltodextrin appear on a food label, the product contains sugar.  

If you’re watching your carbs, take note when sugar-containing ingredients are found near the top of the list on a food's nutrition label or if there is more than one. If either (or both) is true, you’ll know the food is high in carbs as well as sugar.

Highly processed foods, like most breakfast cereals, and foods made with white flour or other refined carbohydrates, are among the most prevalent sources of sugar.

These foods also tend to be high in additives, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients that don’t offer any of the nutritional benefits of whole foods.

Manufactured ingredients and additives may even have negative health effects, particularly in children. Some people experience gas and bloating as a result of sugar substitutes like aspartame.

While products like fruity breakfast cereals marketed to kids are obvious sources of sugar, many brands are relatively high-carb—especially if you’ve overestimated portion size.

  • Frosted Flakes (37 grams per cup)
  • Kellogg’s Raisin Bran (46 grams per cup)
  • Honey Bunches of Oats (46 grams per cup)
  • Frosted Mini Wheats (47 grams per cup)
  • Grape Nuts (93 grams per cup)

Condiments, including salad dressing, can also be high in carbs.

Keeping an eye on portion size helps, but the best way to avoid added calories, carbs, and sugar is to make your own dressing.

Balsamic vinaigrette you can make at home only has about 1 gram of carb per tablespoon.

Making homemade dressing also gives you more control over the ingredients and portions, so you can easily keep your pantry stocked with low-carb condiments.

High-Starch Foods

Starches are long strands of glucose the body breaks down into sugar. Many foods high in starch have low-carb alternatives or substitutions you can incorporate into your diet. 

Starchy Vegetables

Potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, and corn are examples of high carb, starchy vegetables. An easy way to evaluate how starchy a vegetable is to consider it from the root up.

Root vegetables and seeds have the most starch, followed by the fruits of the plant, with stems and leaves having the least.

Vegetables are packed with nutrition and are a good source of fiber, so you should include them in your diet. Focus on choosing low-carb vegetables and mind your portions when including starchy ones. 

Flour

Foods made with white or whole wheat flour, such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, pretzels, bagels, crackers, donuts, cakes, cookies, and pastries, are high in starch.

For lower-carb flour alternatives for baked goods, use those made from nuts or seeds, such as almond flour.

Carbs in Flour
White

107 grams

Wheat

86 grams

Almond

24 grams

Per cup

Whole Grains

Rice, barley, oats, quinoa, and other whole grains are high in starch. Even those with health benefits, such as oatmeal, still add carbs. However, these options also have more fiber, making them a better choice than processed grains.

The best way to avoid overloading your carb intake is to watch your portion size and include these foods thoughtfully in your meal planning.

Legumes

Beans and peas are high in carbs, but your body digests this type of starch more slowly —especially when the beans haven’t been canned or pureed. These resistant starches help you feel full and won’t cause spikes in blood sugar.

Common beans and legumes that are higher in carbs include:

If you’re paying attention to the Glycemic Index (GI) of the foods you eat, legumes are a great low-GI food.

A Word From Verywell

Becoming aware of which foods are high in carbohydrate will help you balance your diet. You don’t necessarily want to eliminate foods that are also high in nutritional value, but you may need to watch your portions if you are managing your blood sugar or you are on a low-carb diet. Whenever possible, get your carbs from sources rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, such as whole grains, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, and fruit.

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