Low-carb vegetables? Uh? Carbs are pasta and bread, right? Well, yes, but if we’re looking to eat a low-carb (probably high protein) diet, then we also need to take a look at the veggie section on our plates too. Aside from the one we all know (and love), (potatoes), many vegetables are high on the ‘Glycaemic Index’ scale. This means that although they’re packed with vitamins and good stuff, they’re also full of quick release sugars. (Sugar is a carbohydrate.)
But before we go on to list all these low-carb vegetables, I think we should take a Fitness Savvy look at what Glycaemic Index (GI) means…
The Glycaemic Index, Chocolate and Energy Levels
All foods containing carbohydrate are given a GI number. Whatever we eat, needs to be digested, and any carbohydrates present (from pasta, bread, vegetables or otherwise) will be broken down into glucose during digestion. Glucose, our body’s preferred energy source, is then released into the blood stream, where it raises blood sugar levels. If you imagine eating your favourite chocolate bar now, you’ll recall that wonderful post-chocolate energy boost. That’s the sugar in the chocolate being released into the blood, causing us to be full of energy, quickly. It does this because the sugar is already in the form of glucose. The blood receives it, and instantly rushes it around the body to all our cells. Our cells then use it to create energy really quickly.
So What does GI Measure?
GI is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrate in our food is digested and broken down into glucose. It measures how quickly this raises blood sugar levels, and by how much. It’s numbered between 1 and 100. A high GI means that this process is really quick and blood sugar levels spike to a high level. A low GI means that the carbohydrate is released more slowly. It won’t eventually spike blood sugar levels to as high a level. Pure glucose has a GI of 100. If we take our chocolate example, your favourite bar is going to have a GI of close to 100.
Quick boosts of energy are great, a high sugar energy drink before the gym can make all the difference. But it’s short lived. Because we all know what happens next – yep, the post-chocolate/energy drink power slump. How quickly that high soon becomes a low. Darn you, GI.
GI Relates to Carbs, Then?
Yes. And if we want to eat a diet that sustains us, allows us to make it through the afternoon and sees us through a punishing gym routine, then we need to be looking to eat low GI foods. A low GI food is one with a score below 55. If a vegetable has a low GI, it’s also going to be low in carbohydrate.
As carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, many of us are now aware that keeping our carb intake low has health benefits. Low-carb diets have been linked with weight loss 1, control of type 2 diabetes 2 and lowering of cholesterol 3. Replacing carbs with protein at each meal also provides more sustainable and steady energy throughout the day.
If you’re simply mindful of your carb intake, or if you’re following a strict low-carb diet such as the Atkins or ketogenic diet, then you’ll need to know all about your low-carbohydrate vegetables. Veggies are packed with all the micronutrients we need and we should be eating our five a day. Making careful choices will ensure all our nutritional needs are met, yet still keeping our carb intake low.
The actual amount of carb and the GI of each vegetable is tricky to estimate without a nutrition lab. It depends obviously on the serving size, but also on how they’re prepared and cooked, and what they’re mixed with. We haven’t included carbs per serving or GI figures in our list, not least because we don’t have our own lab, but also because the figures vary so wildly. But take our word for it. Our own review of vegetable lists concluded that the following veggies are the lowest carbohydrate vegetables you could be putting on your plate:
- Broccoli – a true vitamin powerhouse, broccoli is often referred to as a superfood. And quite rightly so, its nutritional profile is superb. One serving contains enough vitamin C for the whole day. Broccoli can therefore sit proudly next to pretty much any meal without looking out of place.
- Mushrooms – super low in carbs, mushrooms are also a great source of vitamin D, which we often lack when we’re starved of sunshine.
- Spinach (with no side helping of Popeye jokes) – raw spinach contains almost no carbs and will therefore have no effect on blood sugar spikes. Packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals, chuck a handful into curries and stews to wilt once you’ve finished cooking for an extra vitamin laden boost.
- Avocado – the trendiest low carbohydrate vegetable on our list, this hipster veg is full of healthy fats and vitamin E. Make like Pippa Middleton and have it smashed on toast for brekkie. Or whizz up a soft one in a smoothie mid-morning to keep blood sugar levels stable leading up to lunchtime.
- Lettuce – good old dependable lettuce, even when it’s limp it can add a touch of green to smoothies and stir fries. Ultra-low in carbs (there isn’t much lower) but high in the vitamins stakes, lettuce deserves its place in the low-carb-and-good-for-you hall of fame.
- Kale – having recently lost its place at the top of the hipster veg charts to avocado, kale is still an antioxidant hero. One serving also contains well over 100% of the recommended daily amount of vitamins A and C. Eat it massaged and raw, whizzed up in a smoothie, baked into crisps or sautéed with tamari and sesame seeds.
- Brussels – a Brussels sprout is for life, not just for Christmas. And it’s really low in carbs, also great for all year round eating. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Brussels are loaded with vitamins C and K and are a great choice for a Sunday roast.
Delicious! Anything else?
As a general rule, if you’re cooking low-carb vegetables, then make sure it’s just a light sauté or steam. Keep away from the sweet, starchy veggies such as carrots, sweet potatoes and peas and if you can’t resist them, only eat white potatoes as a treat. Fill up on all our low-carb vegetables and eat plenty of protein and good fats and you should be getting all you need for a low-carb, yet sustainable diet.