By Nina Nethery
A low carb diet is, by definition, a high vegetable diet! In addition to protein and healthy natural fats, certain vegetables are the foundation of the low carbohydrate way of eating. Vegetables do contain carbohydrates but, in most cases, these are exactly the kinds of carbs you should be consuming. Contrary to the standard dietary fiction that all vegetables are equally healthful, low carb dieters learn to distinguish between lower carb and higher carb vegetables. A serving of spinach, for example, is better than a serving of peas; and broccoli is more health-protective than potatoes.
The “vegetable superstars” are the ones with the most fiber and phytonutrients. Fortunately, the vegetables densest in nutrients happen to be those lowest in carbs! Low-sugar veggies (including salad greens) are nutrient powerhouses, dense in fiber and antioxidants, but low on the glycemic index. That's why escarole, spinach, parsley, watercress, arugula and their dark-green cousins offer the best dietary bargains. Some other excellent health choices include asparagus, bamboo shoots, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, eggplant, jicama, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard greens, okra, onions, pumpkin, scallions, shallots, snow peas, spaghetti squash, string or wax beans, Swiss chard, tomatoes, turnips, water chestnuts and zucchini.
Starchy and sweet-tasting vegetables such as carrots, corn, beets, potatoes and parsnips essentially cede some of their antioxidant capacity to wasted space occupied by sugar. They pack plenty of carbs, but little nutrition, so they have no place on a controlled carbohydrate diet.
Perhaps the single most important criterion for choosing vegetables is antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants are a special group of vitamins and phytochemicals in vegetables that protect cells against the ravages of environmental pollution, stress, disease and aging. Eat more antioxidants and you'll stay healthier and younger longer.
Which veggies offer the most antioxidant protection per gram of carbohydrate? Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston studied the antioxidant capacity of common vegetables and assigned each vegetable an antioxidant score. By dividing this score by the number of grams of carbohydrate in the same-size serving of each vegetable, you arrive at a number called the “Atkins Ratio.” Choose vegetables with a high Atkins Ratio to get the most antioxidants per gram of carbohydrate.
The following sample Atkins Ratio numbers show how widely amounts can vary, and point to the vegetables you should select and those you should avoid or eat rarely. As you can see, garlic is in a class by itself! The cruciferous vegetables -- broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage -- which extensive research has shown to be a group of potent cancer fighters, are well up there. Onions also play a starring role.
• Garlic (1 clove) : 23.2
• Leaf lettuce (1 leaf): 8.2
• Kale (˝ cup raw): 6.5
• Onion (1 tablespoon): 6.2
• Iceberg lettuce: 5.8
• Spinach (˝ cup raw): 5.0
• Broccoli (˝ cup raw): 3.2
• Red bell pepper (˝ cup raw): 2.5
• Brussels sprouts (˝ cup): 2.3
• Beets (˝ cup): 2.1
• Cauliflower (˝ cup): 1.8
• Eggplant (˝ cup): 1.6
• Celery (˝ cup raw): 1.5
• Cabbage (˝ cup): 1.2
• Green beans (˝ cup): 0.8
• Cucumber (˝ cup raw): 0.7
• Carrots (˝ cup): 0.4
• Corn (˝ cup): 0.3
• Sweet potato (˝ cup): 0.15
• White potato (˝ cup): 0.09
During the first phase of a low carb diet when you are resetting your body’s metabolism and jump-starting its ability to burn fat, you are encouraged to eat three cups of salad greens and other raw salad ingredients each day. The salad superstars include leafy Boston, romaine and other lettuces; arugula, endive, escarole, parsley, spinach and watercress; plus bean sprouts, celery, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers and radishes. You can also have up to one cup of raw or cooked vegetables that are slightly higher in carbs such as kale; Swiss chard, cancer-fighting cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts; beta-carotene-rich peppers and pumpkin; and lycopene-dense tomatoes which help protect against prostate cancer.
In the later phases of low carb maintenance dieting when you gradually increase the amount of allowable carbs, your veggie intake will continue to increase.
Did you know there are two special-category vegetables that are surprise winners for low carb dieters? You can help yourself to half of a Haas (California) avocado and up to 20 olives every day!
Because vegetables do have some carbs, it’s best to eat them throughout the day rather than all at once. Eat your veggies with protein and fats to slow their passage through your digestive system and minimize their impact on your blood sugar. For example, you'll feel satisfied longer with a chef's salad rather than a green salad.
Cook your vegetables carefully. Most vegetables are most nutritious when brightly colored and crisp -- not overcooked. An exception to this rule is the tomato because the cancer-fighting chemical lycopene becomes more bio-available when heat breaks down the cell walls.
Note: Much of the information for this article came from the Atkins Center website, www.Atkins.com. Please visit this site for more information. LoCarbDiner.com is a certified Atkins Retail store.