Going low-carb may seem like a deprivation diet at first blush, but you actually have a lot of delicious food choices at your disposal. When it comes to choosing carbs to accompany your protein and fats, your best bet is fresh, nonstarchy vegetables – leafy greens, cruciferous veggies and others. Most low-carb diets limit your consumption of starchy veggies – potatoes and other root vegetables – to later phases of the plan, when you’re either close to your goal weight or in the weight-maintenance phase.
Low-Carb Diet Fundamentals
The numerous low-carb diets on the market offer slightly different food lists and suggested carb counts, but the general principles of this type of eating remain pretty much the same. In all the plans, you increase your consumption of quality proteins and fats while sharply decreasing your daily carbohydrate intake. In the initial phase of the Atkins Diet, you consume only 20 “net” grams of carbs a day – a far cry from the 130 grams recommended for adults by the National Academies of Medicine. This forces your body to burn fat instead of its preferred fuel – carbohydrate. By Phase Four, you are up to 100 grams of carbs a day.
You arrive at grams of net carbs by subtracting the grams of fiber a vegetable contains from its total carb count. So, for example, a 1-cup serving of cooked kale contains 7 grams of carbohydrate, but 3 grams are from fiber, which leaves you with 4 grams of net carbs.
Best Vegetable Choices
When you’re counting carbs, your best friends are veggies with the lowest carb counts. Plants, in general, are made up of leaves, stems and flowers, fruits and roots, with the leaves supplying the lowest level of carbs. Go for leafy greens like kale, chard, beet and mustard greens, watercress, bok choy, spinach and all types of lettuce as the best vegetables for your low-carb diet. Many of these have less than 1 gram of net carbs per 1/2-cup serving.
The stems, stalks and flowers of vegetables offer slightly more in carbohydrate than the leaves but are still very low. Examples include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. The “fruits” of vegetables contain the seeds of the plant and, again, a slightly higher level of carbs. Foods like zucchini and yellow squash, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, green beans and okra fall into this category. While a 1/2-cup serving of cooked bok choy will net you only 0.5 gram of carbs, the same serving of cooked tomato has almost 9 grams of net carbs.
Starchy Root Vegetables
Many starchy vegetables like white and sweet potatoes, yams, beets and parsnips – also called root vegetables – contain a much higher number of carbs. For example, a small baked russet potato provides 27 net carbs; a large one supplies 57 net carbs.
This is why low-carb plans usually recommend you steer clear of starchy vegetables until your weight loss is well under way. In Atkins, starchy veggies are off-limits until Phase Three of the program, when you are about 10 pounds from your target weight. In this phase, you are eating 50 to 80 grams of net carbs a day, so you have more room for the higher carb counts in starches.
Choose fresh or frozen vegetables for the best quality and nutrition. Be aware that adding cheese or creamy sauces to your vegetables, or eating them breaded and deep-fried, boosts their carb count. Your healthiest bet is steaming your veggies and serving them with a little butter or olive oil – fats allowed in 1-tablespoon servings on Atkins. Flavor your veggie dishes with fresh herbs, many of which have no carbs at all.
Whichever veggies you opt for, watch your serving sizes. The Atkins Carb Counter tool bases most of its counts on 1/2-cup servings for both nonstarchy and starchy vegetables.