If you are trying to get into ketosis and stay there, one of the most important things to learn about is "keto vegetables" – the vegetables that are allowed in a keto diet. Some people ask which are keto-safe or keto-approved vegetables.
Ketosis means that your body is producing ketones and your brain is using them as its source of fuel, instead of using glucose. That sounds simple enough. However, understanding why this switch of fuel is so beneficial to your health, and how to get your body into this state requires a bit of learning.
Hopefully this article will help to answer some of your questions, and help you to know which vegetables you should be adding to your keto diet.
Your Questions About Keto Vegetables Answered
#1: What Is Ketosis?
Ketosis is the body’s natural response to food shortage. It occurs when your body (and especially your brain) uses fat as its prime source of fuel, rather than glucose.
This goes back to our caveman roots. If food was plentiful, the caveman’s body stored the excess into body fat. This was great for the caveman, because it meant that when food was scarce, his body could switch from using glucose as fuel and instead burn his stored body fat.
It’s not so great for us, though, because we generally don’t have prolonged periods of food shortage. We’ve been told to have 3 meals a day, every day – and we often top that up with snacks, visits to the doughnut stall and the like! So, we just keep burning glucose.
#2: What Is the Role of Insulin in Ketosis?
A key understanding here, is that most of the food we eat can be divided into proteins, carbohydrates and fats. It is (mostly) the carbohydrates that convert into glucose in the blood. Insulin is then released from the pancreas, to carry the glucose to the body cells, where it is used to fuel the body’s activities.
You can think about glucose as the postman, carrying the glucose to the cells, knocking on the "door" of the cell (the insulin receptor on the cell membrane) to make the delivery of glucose. For some people this receptor is faulty, and the insulin cannot make the delivery. This is known as insulin resistance. As a result, the glucose (or sugar) levels in the blood just keep building up. The only way for the body to get rid of the glucose is to convert it into body fat.
And, of course, because the cell has now not had a delivery of glucose, it has no fuel to carry out its work. This leads to feelings of extreme tiredness, among other things.
Most of us know that insulin regulates blood sugar levels in the blood. What most of us don’t know is that insulin is also the messenger that tells the body to store any excess glucose as body fat. And, when insulin is active in the system, burning of fat is blocked.
So, insulin’s role is to prevent ketosis from happening.
#3: How Do I Get Into Ketosis?
The simple answer is that you have to cut back on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates convert into glucose, so the more carbs you eat, the more glucose your body will have to use as fuel, the more insulin will be in circulation and the more likely you will be to store the excess as body fat. And your body will actively resist all your attempts to lose weight.
When the body burns fat, it releases "ketones" into the blood stream. Ketones that are not used as fuel are excreted via the lungs, skin and in urine. You can measure the levels through a blood test, or by testing your urine with a "ketostix".
The number of carbohydrates it will take to get into ketosis is individually dependent, but in general it is somewhere between 20 and 100 per day. People who have Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes will generally need to stay on the lower side of the range. Regular monitoring of the number of carbs you are consuming and matching this to the ketostix reading will let you determine your own level.
#4: Why Is Ketosis Good for Your Health?
Despite fats being vilified for many years and being blamed for weight gain, this is increasingly being debunked as bad science. It is the consumption of carbohydrates, that convert into glucose, that is the major contributor to weight gain, and, increasingly, is being implicated in chronic diseases and the so-called "metabolic syndrome".
So, one of the first benefits of being in ketosis is weight loss. This is usually quite rapid, and you are actually losing fat, not water or muscle. There is generally significant loss of belly fat – this is a marker for obesity and is dangerous as it surrounds critical internal organs. This loss is measured in terms of waist-to-hip ratio. And the bonus is that you will have no hunger pangs while you lose the weight.
Other benefits include high energy and focus, and better sleep.
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What Does Scientific Research Say?
An analysis of 23 studies compared a low carbohydrate diet (LC) to a low fat diet (LF). The results are interesting:
- 21 of the 23 studies found that people lost more weight on the low-carb (LC) diet – in some cases 2 to 3 times more. The loss of unhealthy belly fat was significantly better for those on LC diets.
- 18 of the 23 studies reported that HDL ("good" cholesterol) improved in those on the LC diet – this is an important marker for avoiding metabolic syndrome. For those on the LF diet, HDL remained the same or went down.
- 19 of the 23 studies showed a decrease in triglycerides (also a marker for metabolic syndrome). This decrease happened for both diets, but was much stronger in the LC group.
- Some of the studies looked at the impact of the two diets on Type 2 diabetes. Where patients adequately reduced their carbohydrate intake, there was a drastic reduction in HbA1c, the marker for blood sugar levels. 90% of these patients were able to reduce or eliminate their diabetes medication.
- Both diets reduced blood pressure
- The diets seemed equally easy (or difficult?) to stick to, as overall just under 80% of the LC groups stayed on the diet to the end of the studies, compared to just under 78% for the LF group.
There is a one significant difference between low-fat and low-carb diets: in LF you generally have to weigh your food and count calories. In LC you can eat until fullness, provided you are eating more protein and fat, and limiting the carbohydrate portion.
#5: So, What Do Vegetables Have to Do With All of This?
The short answer: Vegetables are carbohydrates. This means that, compared perhaps to a paleo diet, where you are told that you can eat as many vegetables as you want, you will need to manage your vegetable intake.
Not all carbohydrates are the same. There are 3 components in a carbohydrate: fiber, starch and sugar. The amount of each that is in a food, determines its nutrient value. Fiber and starch are called complex carbs and sugar is called a simple carb. The basic difference is about how quickly these components can be digested. In general, the more simple the carbohydrate, the more quickly it is digested and therefore the more quickly it is converted to glucose. This means that, in the ketosis context, you would be looking for the more complex carbohydrates.
Another term that you might have heard in this context, is the glycemic index (GI). This is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate is digested. A score of 100 is given to pure glucose and to white bread, that is digested very quickly. Everything else is compared to them. Any score above 70 GI is regarded as high GI – and therefore to be avoided.
We also know that some vegetables have more carbs in them that others. For example,
- A cup of bok choy has 3 carbs
- A cup of green cabbage has 8.2 carbs
- And, a cup of butternut squash has 22 carbs
So, if you are trying to limit the number of carbs you have in a day, it is important to know how many carbs there are per portion of each vegetable. You can find a helpful list here.
#6: "Keto Vegetables" – What Should I Be Eating?
Most keto diets will give lists around what you can eat freely, those to eat occasionally and those not to eat at all.
Perhaps the first comment to make is that a keto diet is more about eating "real" and whole foods than it is about food that is low in carbs. It is about adopting a healthier lifestyle. And, obviously, you will be looking for carbohydrates, including vegetables, that have lower GI. A rule of thumb for vegetables is that
- Vegetables growing above ground are low carb and can be eaten freely.
- Vegetables growing below ground contain more carbs, so you’ll have to be more careful with them (especially potatoes).
Recommended "Keto Vegetable List"
Eat Freely (Vegetables That Have Low GI and Low Sugar)
a. All green leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, cabbage, chard, chives, radicchio, bok choy, rocket, Swiss chard, watercress)
b. Some cruciferous vegetables (dark leaf kale, radishes, kohlrabi)
c. Other: (Avocado, asparagus, bamboo shoots, celery, cucumber, mange tout, summer squash like spaghetti squash and zucchini)
a. Some cruciferous vegetables (brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage (green, white and red), cauliflower, fennel, swedes, turnips
b. Nightshades: eggplant/brinjal/aubergine, peppers, tomato
c. Other: some root vegetables (eg parsley root), onion, spring onion, garlic, leek, mushroom, winter squash (pumpkin, butternut), sea vegetables, okra, artichokes, water chestnuts, beans (sprouts, green, runner, broad, wax), sugar snap peas
d. To be eaten only if your daily carb limit allows: root vegetables (celery root, carrot, beetroot, parsnip, sweet potato, corn on the cob)
a. Vegetable oils
Perhaps you can print out this list to help you decide on how much you can eat, so that you don’t eat too many vegetables.
Remember that you are trying to limit the total number of carbohydrates in a day from vegetables and other sources to somewhere between 20 and 100 per day.
Summary and Conclusions About Keto Vegetables
Vegetables are an important part of any healthy diet, including the keto diet. You can use the keto vegetables that have been listed in any of your recipes. They can be frozen, boiled, deep or stir fried, roasted, steamed. Also, they can be added to meat, chicken or fish. Just remember to count how many carbs are in each portion.
This article has attempted to give you a better understanding, not only of which are the best or the most keto–friendly vegetables, but also the background understanding of why this is so.
Please let me know if you have found this information helpful, and I wish you happy keto-living.
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