Few diets have gained as much popularity in recent years as the ketogenic diet.
The popular eating approach, nicknamed the keto diet, involves drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake to put you into a state of ketosis, or the point where your body shifts from using carbs to fat as a primary fuel source. This shift can happen after just a few days of eating a diet that’s very low in carbs (think: between 20 and 50 grams of carbs per day, depending on the individual), according to a review published in February 2014 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. That’s because your central nervous system relies primarily on glucose, which is derived from carbs, to function, and it must find an alternate energy source ASAP.
But before you try the keto diet, you should know what you’re signing up for: “[Keto is] a very high-fat diet, which contains moderate protein, and very, very little carbohydrates,” says Georgie Fear, RD, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss who is based in Alberta, Canada. To reach ketosis, you need to limit your daily carb intake to 20 to 50 grams (g) per day, which is a lot lower than the current recommended daily allowance, or RDA, of 130 g of carbs per day to meet the average minimum amount of glucose used by the brain, per the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. And unfortunately, this low-carb allotment can make it tricky to get enough vegetables in your diet, as some vegetables boast a high carb count. It’s no surprise that as a result, people on keto tend to take in less fiber than usual, which can exacerbate symptoms such as constipation that happen as part of the so-called keto flu. This period often lasts about two weeks, but tummy trouble can persist long after that if your fiber intake remains low.
Upping your intake of that gut-friendly nutrient is just one of the reasons it’s so important to prioritize adding produce to your plate when doing keto. Furthermore, certain veggies will provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive — without knocking you out of ketosis.
Speaking of following a nutritious diet, you’ll want to consult a registered dietitian and your healthcare team before embarking on a restrictive diet such as keto.
One of the reasons keto is attractive is the potential for quick, short-term weight loss, says Leah Kaufman, CDE, RD, owner of Leah Kaufman Nutrition in New York City. You’ll find no shortage of anecdotal evidence by way of before-and-after photos online, but it’s true there is some early research to support the idea that keto can help you whittle your waist. For example, a meta-analysis published in January 2015 in the journal Obesity Reviews suggested one possible reason the keto diet leads to weight loss is that ketosis may suppress appetite, even when you’re restricting calories. Yet more research is needed to confirm those findings, the authors noted.
Still, Kaufman warns, “I would use caution if trying to use the keto diet as a sustainable approach.” Many registered dietitians (RDs) will say keto is a three-month diet max, but the aforementioned February 2014 review suggested people with obesity may be able to follow keto safely for one year, so long as they’re under the supervision of a physician.
Just manage your expectations. With its restrictive macronutrient requirements, it’s not an easy plan to follow. “If you eat out often, travel, or socialize with your friends at restaurants on a regular basis, it can be borderline-impossible to stay on the keto diet,” Fear says. After all, it’s very easy to go over the daily carb amount allowed on the keto diet — despite being high in potassium, a large banana can pack a whopping 30 g of total carbs, notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (Total carbs are different from net carbs; roughly speaking, net carbs are the number of carbs left over when you subtract the amount of fiber and sugar alcohols in a given food, per Atkins.com. Keto dieters often count these carbs.)
In addition, among other groups, like pregnant or breastfeeding women, the keto diet generally isn’t recommended for people with kidney or liver problems, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, gout, anyone whose gallbladder has been removed, or individuals with a family history of cancer, Fear says.
Bottom line: If you’re thinking about trying the keto diet, consult your healthcare team first. “A patient should go through a medical assessment to make sure that they are a candidate for something like [keto], and then it should be medically supervised,” Kaufman says.
Once you’ve gotten the all-clear from your doc to start the keto diet, here are the 10 best vegetables to include in your diet plan:
“Zucchini tops my list, as it’s low in carbs, has a sweet, mild taste that’s easy to like, and is versatile,” Fear says. Eat it raw, roast it, grill it, or try lightly cooked zucchini noodles topped with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. For each cup of chopped zucchini with skin, you will get 3.9 g total carbs, 2.7 g net carbs, 0.4 g fat, and 1.5 g protein, per the USDA. Plus, that same portion size includes 22 mg of vitamin C, which is about 25 percent of the daily value (DV), and 12 mcg of vitamin A, which is about 1 percent of the DV.
“Cauliflower is another vegetable that’s low in carbs, but also very high in vitamins and phytochemicals,” Fear says. Add chopped cauliflower to your salads, or top with paprika and garlic powder and roast in the oven. Riced cauliflower also makes a great low-carb replacement for traditional rice. In 1 cup of chopped cauliflower, you get 5.3 g of total carbs, 3.2 g of net carbs, 0.3 g of fat, and 2.1 g of protein. Not to mention, you get 24 mg of calcium, covering about 2 percent of the DV, and 320 mg of potassium, which means you’re getting about 7 percent of the DV.
Spinach is very low in carbs and easy to incorporate into your meals. If you don’t like spinach in salads, store baby spinach in your freezer and take some out anytime you fry up eggs or blend a green smoothie. One cup of spinach contains 1.1 g of total carbs, 0.4 g of net carbs, 0.1 g of fat, and 0.9 g of protein, notes the USDA. Star nutrients in spinach include calcium (30 mg, or about 2 percent of the DV), magnesium (24 mg, or about 6 percent of the DV), potassium (167 mg, or about 4 percent of the DV), and zinc (0.16 mg, or about 1 percent of the DV).
4. Bell Peppers
“Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers are awesome ways to add much-needed vitamins to your keto diet, and satisfy a desire for crunch without the carbs of most snack foods,” such as potato chips, crackers, pretzels, and cookies, Fear says. In fact, why not use the slices to scoop up naturally high-fat guacamole or pesto? In a cup of chopped bell peppers, there are 5.3 g of total carbs, 4 g of net carbs, 0 g of fat, and 1.3 g of protein, according to the USDA. Bell peppers also offer 8 mg of vitamin C, which is about 9 percent of the DV, among other nutrients.
Asparagus is an easy veggie to add to any dish. In 1 cup you’ll get 5.2 g total carbs, 2.4 g net carbs, 0.2 g fat, and 3 g protein, per the USDA. Also, the same portion size is loaded with gut-filling fiber (2.8 g, or about 11 percent of the DV), and vitamin C (7.5 mg, or about 8 percent of the DV).
Not only is broccoli easy to steam or add to stir-fry dishes, but just 1 cup, chopped, of the green veggie provides a whopping 90 percent of the DV for vitamin C (81.2 g), notes the USDA. Additionally, you also get 28 mcg of vitamin A, which is about 3 percent of the DV, and 92.5 mcg of vitamin K, or about 77 percent of the DV. As for macros, the same portion size contains 6.04 g of total carbs, 3.64 g of net carbs, 0.34 g of fat, and 2.57 g of protein.
7. White Mushrooms
Mushrooms are incredibly low in carbs, and nearly one-half of those carbs are from fiber. According to the USDA, in 1 cup of white mushrooms (pieces or slices), you get 0.7 g of fiber, which is about 3 percent of the DV, not to mention nutrients such as potassium (223 mg, or about 5 percent of the DV). For the same amount, you get 2.3 g of total carbs, 1.6 g of net carbs, 0.2 g of fat, and 2.2 g of protein. Add them to soups, salads, and meat dishes.
Celery, which is about 96 percent water, is a must-have low-carb option that will add crunch and flavor to any dish. “Add diced celery to any cold meat or seafood salad, use it to scoop up cottage cheese, or fill it with nut butter,” Fear says. One cup, chopped, of celery offers 3 g of total carbs, 1.4 g of net carbs, 0.2 g of fat, and 0.7 g of protein, according to the USDA.
Arugula is a tasty salad green that won’t push you over your daily carb allotment. Use it on its own or mix it with other salad greens, add it to sandwiches, or pair it with eggs. Per cup of raw arugula, there are 0.7 g of total carbs, 0.4 g of net carbs, 0.1 g of fat, and 0.5 g of protein, notes the USDA. Additionally, you’ll get a bounty of essential nutrients, such as 32 mg of calcium, which is about 2 percent of the DV, 74 mg of potassium, or nearly 2 percent of the DV, and 3 mg of vitamin C, which is about 3 percent of the DV.
Kale is extremely low in carbs, but it offers a bunch of important nutrients. Per the USDA, in 1 cup of the raw greens, you get vitamin A (51 mcg, which is about 6 percent of the DV), vitamin C (19.6 mg, or about 22 percent of the DV), and calcium (53 mg, which is about 4 percent of the DV). As far as macros go, the same portion size contains 0.9 mg of total carbs, 0 g of net carbs, 0.3 g of fat, and 0.6 g of protein. Steam a bunch to create a tasty side dish, or bake in the oven to make kale chips with a sprinkle of sea salt.