Critics of low-carb/high-fat diets often mention the importance of vegetables, under the (mistaken) assumption that they have no place in a low-carb diet. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – while it’s true that such diets generally don’t allow for starchy, carb-heavy vegetables (e.g., potatoes), most good diets will definitely recommend healthy daily serve of healthy, non-starchy, low-carb vegetables to provide essential nutrients. So what are the best vegetables for a low-carb diet?
Some things to consider
Before getting into the “meat” of the article (see what I did there?), there are some things that you might want to consider when shopping.
In terms of nutritional value, there is no difference between buying organic or non-organic. Despite the claims of growers (or marketing companies), the general consensus amongst researchers is that there is no nutritional benefit to eating organic produce over its non-organic counterpart.
However, from a “good for the planet” point of view, organic produce generally is much better – organic producers tend to use only natural pesticides, engage in more crop rotation, and preserve soil quality to a much greater extent. The downside of this is that it costs more.
So, from a pure carb/calorie/nutrient point of view, it doesn’t matter what you get. For your wallet, non-organic is generally cheaper. For the environment, organic all the way. Your choice!
What about GM Foods (Genetically Modified Foods)?
There’s a lot of hysteria about GM foods, which is largely undeserved. Basically, there are a lot of good GM foods out there (strains of plants that have been bred to be resistant to certain pests, reducing the need for pesticides), and there are some very bad companies who abuse their patents and intellectual property. The upshot is, just because something is genetically modified doesn’t make it bad (in fact, it may be more nutritious than otherwise). Buy it if you want, or don’t – it doesn’t particularly matter either way. Just be aware of the fact that there’s no good nutrition reason to avoid them.
Starchy vegetables are, by definition, high in carbs – starch is a carbohydrate formed from several bonded glucose molecules. While starchy vegetables aren’t bad for you per se, if your goal is to eat a low-carb diet, then eating things that are high in carbs isn’t going to help. As a general rule, the sweeter the vegetable, the more carbs it has.
So, avoid vegetables like sweet potato, potato, peas, beans, parsnips, etc. Even carrots and onions can be annoyingly full of carbs, although they’re OK in moderation. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of delicious vegetables that you CAN eat.
The five best vegetables for your low-carb diet
In considering contenders for this list, we’re not just interested in carb content (although obviously that’s important). We also want to consider the other nutritional benefits – I’ve spoken before about the importance of various nutrients in your diet, so the vegetables that made the list are those that provided the greatest nutritional benefit for the lowest carb cost.
Spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, with a very low carb-profile. Old Popeye cartoons used to try and convince people that spinach was an amazing source of iron that would make you strong – it certainly does contain iron, but it’s not going make your guns fire and save Olive.
What it does contain plenty of, however, are two extremely important nutrients: potassium and magnesium. A decent serve of spinach (180g, or 6oz), contains around 156mg of magnesium, and 840mg of potassium. It also contains a host of other important nutrients, including heaps of vitamins (A, B2, B6, C, E, and K), calcium, copper, folate, and manganese.
All that for around 2.5 net carbs, 4g fiber, 5g protein, and around 41 calories. Not bad!
If you’re not a huge fan of the taste (I’m certainly not), there are plenty of ways to cook it to make it more palatable. Cream it, cook it in butter, sauté it with oil and garlic – all great options. If you have your own awesome way of cooking it, let me know below!
Yes, it’s every child’s worst nightmare – the dreaded brussels sprouts. Although, speaking personally, I never understood the whole “ick” factor about them – I’ve always quite enjoyed them. Particularly if you steam then sauté them. With bacon.
So, what’s so great about them? Quite aside from the fact that they may well help prevent cancer through anti-inflammatory and antioxidant routes, they’re exceptionally high in vitamins C and K, as well as providing good levels of potassium (around 500mg per 150g serve).
They’re a bit higher in carbs than spinach, however, at around 7g of net carbs per 150g serve, although the 4g of fiber per serve and almost 4g of protein somewhat makes up for it.
One of the really great things about these is the convenience factor – individual sprouts are the perfect size for a quick snack, so grab the frying pan, sauté them with bacon and spices, and keep them in a container for a great low-calorie snack!
If you’re on a low-carb diet and you don’t know that cauliflower is basically a miracle food, let me enlighten you.
First of all, its nutritional profile: It’s extremely low in carbs, with around 2g of net carbs per 100g, 2.3g of fiber, and 1.8g of protein. So you can eat a reasonable amount of it without the risk of eating too many carbs. It’s also a very good source of vitamin C, and contains a number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
The real value of cauliflower, however, lies in its ability to replace a huge range of high-carb foods…
Feel like mashed potato? Mashed cauliflower is the answer – steam it until soft, then throw it in a food processor with some cream, butter, and cheese. I actually prefer this to real mashed potato now, at a fraction of the carbs and calories.
Pizza? Say hello to cauliflower pizza crust. Steam it, press all the water out of it, mix with an egg and some parmesan cheese, then spread it on a pizza stone and bake until cooked. Top with pizza toppings, cook, and voilà: healthy, low-carb pizza.
Fried rice? Cauliflower to the rescue again. Throw it into a food processor until it achieves rice-like consistency. Microwave until tender, then toss it in a wok with whatever you like.
Honestly, cauliflower is wonderful. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you should always have some in the fridge – there are so many ways of cooking it that you’ll never get sick of it.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I was never a fan of zucchini growing up. I don’t know if it was the way my parents cooked it, but I just found the texture horrible, and was convinced it tasted awful. Nowadays I’ve come to realize that it actually has very little taste of its own, and there are so many ways of cooking it that make it not awful that I’ve become quite a fan of it.
In terms of nutrient profiles, zucchini isn’t quite the powerhouse that some vegetables are. It’s got some magnesium (not much), some potassium (around 330mg per cup), some vitamin C…it’s not bad, but there are more nutritionally complete vegetables out there. So why is it on this list? Well, partially because it’s still very low-carb (around 2.8g of net carbs per cup, with 1.4g fiber), but also because of its versatility. It’s a fantastic vegetable for adding volume to your meals – because of its low carb content, you can chop up a zucchini or two and throw them in a stew, or steam them as a side, or use a spiralizer to make them into pasta…there are a lot of ways that it can be prepared and cooked.
It’s a healthy vegetable that absorbs the flavour of whatever it’s cooked with (which is what makes it ideal for stews), has very few net-carbs, and is incredibly versatile. Be sure to keep checking back – I’ll post some spiralizer recipes within the next few weeks!
Before you say it, I know – it’s technically a fruit. But I’m including it here because it’s so damn amazing, and I often eat it with vegetables, or as a side in its own right (it pairs amazingly well with chicken and bacon, for the record).
So why are they so great? Phew, where do I start? Potassium – they’re a great source. Around 730mg per medium avocado. Vitamin K and folate? Plenty of that, too. Around 3g of protein per avocado. More fiber than you can shake a stick at (around 10g for a medium avocado), and only 3g of net carbs! AND they have a whole heap of unsaturated fats. Honestly, if you’re not already adding avocado to your diet on a regular basis, you should be.
The only downside to them is that their high fat-content means that they’re quite calorie dense, so keep track of how much you’re eating. But as long as you eat them in moderation (as with everything), then they provide a fantastic nutritional boost to your diet.
So there you have it! Five of the best vegetables (even if one’s technically a fruit) to regularly consume on a low-carb diet. Obviously there are others, but a lot of them are quite similar – green, leafy vegetables, for example (e.g., swiss chard, bok choi, etc.) all tend to be very good for you. Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) all tend to have similar nutrient profiles. I encourage you to experiment, but always be aware of veggies with surprisingly high carbs, like carrots and onions. And, as always, if you have any veggies that are you personal favourite, let me know below!