Eat your vegetables. It’s a command most have heard since they were old enough to hold a fork and, if you’re a parent, you likely tell your own kids all the time. Even though we know eating vegetables is important, it’s not something most of us are good at doing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10 percent of adults are meeting the recommended daily intake for fruits and vegetables.
While all vegetables are full of beneficial nutrients, low-carb vegetables in particular are a great way to make a meal more satiating without majorly upping the calorie content. “Vegetables are packed with health-promoting vitamins and minerals, plus satiating fiber. They are the perfect addition to help build a healthy plate, without adding a lot of extra calories,” says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian, author of The Small Change Diet and host of the podcast The Keri Report.
“Vegetables are generally broken down into two groups, starchy and non-starchy vegetables,” says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab. Sassos explains that starchy vegetables are usually higher in carbohydrates and lower in fiber than their non-starchy counterparts. She also points out that starchy vegetables tend to affect blood sugar levels more.
It bears repeating that all vegetables are nutritious. “We know that a diet rich in produce can help lower risk for a number of chronic diseases, from heart disease to certain types of cancers,” Sassos says. “Vegetables in general are packed with a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and more, making them an essential part of a healthy diet.” If you are looking to up your intake of low-carbohydrate vegetables in particular, there is no shortage to choose from. Need some ideas? How about 15.
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“Leafy greens, such as spinach, romaine, kale and collard greens, are a good source of antioxidants which help protect the body against free radicals,” Gans says. Free radicals are atoms that damage cells and are impossible to escape; they’re in air pollution, chemicals and even the sun’s UV rays. Over time, exposure to free radicals can damage the body’s cells, which can negatively impact health. Consider antioxidant-rich foods, like leafy greens, a protective shield. “Dark leafy greens especially provide bone-promoting calcium and heart-healthy folate,” Gans adds, naming two other health benefits of this low-carb food.
There’s a reason why spiralized zucchini has become a popular way to cut down on carbs in place of traditional pasta; a medium zucchini only has six grams of carbohydrates. “Zucchini noodles make a great swap for spaghetti and lasagna in many recipes, helping to keep blood sugar levels at bay,” Sassos says. Gans adds that the squash is a good source of fiber, which promotes digestive health, and also contains vitamin C, which supports the immune system.
Another low-carb vegetable that supports the immune system is broccoli. “A cup of broccoli contains even more vitamin C than an orange,” Sassos says. Pretty impressive, right? She also says that broccoli contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which are key for eye health. That’s not all, either. Gans adds that broccoli contains vitamins E and K, both of which help protect against chronic illness and disease.
A cousin of sorts to broccoli, cauliflower boasts just as many nutritional benefits without majorly upping the carb content in your meal. Like broccoli, Gans says that cauliflower has vitamins C, E and K. In fact, one serving of cauliflower has the entire daily recommended amount of vitamin C.
Mushrooms really are magic — even if they’re just of the shiitake, button and portobello variety. “Many mushrooms contain vitamin D, which sets it apart from other veggies,” Gans says, adding that vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption.
Whether you’re enjoying bell peppers stuffed, marinated or blended into a dip, you’ll be doing your immune system a big favor — they’re full of vitamin C. “They’re also rich in carotenoids, another antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, so bell peppers may furthermore help decrease the risk for heart disease and certain cancers,” Gans says.
Asparagus is yet another low-carb veg that’s especially good for cardiovascular health, also linked with lowering LDL cholesterol. Sassos offers up a pro tip on keeping your asparagus fresh: Wrap the edges of the stalks in a wet paper towel and then place in a plastic bag before transferring to the refrigerator. This will help them to last even longer. That way, you’ll have more time to make roasted asparagus with creamy feta or enjoy the veg in other delicious ways.
Celery isn’t just a vehicle for peanut butter or a Bloody Mary garnish; it’s a super low-carb and low-calorie way to up your fiber content. “Celery also contains apigenin, a flavonoid that research shows can play a role in stopping breast cancer cells from inhibiting their own death by turning them into normal cells that die as scheduled,” Sassos says.
With a water content of about 96 percent, cucumbers are one of the most hydrating vegetables you’ll find in the produce section. The hydration benefits combined with its antioxidant content makes them a bonafide beauty food that’s good for your skin. “Look for firm cucumbers with dark green color that are heavy in size,” Sassos says. This indicates that the veg is at its ripest and most nutrient-rich.
“Certain nutrients found in cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables may help prevent certain cancers,” Sassos says. To this point, one scientific study found a lower rate in breast cancer among people in the U.S. from Poland who ate cabbage and sauerkraut regularly growing up versus Americans who did not eat these foods regularly when they were younger.
Even though avocados are satiating, they aren’t high in carbs; half an avocado has about 8.5 grams. “Avocados themselves contain no cholesterol and the unsaturated fats they do have may help get ‘bad’ cholesterol in check,” Sassos says. “According to the Hass Avocado Board, avocados are also the richest known fruit source of phytosterols, important cholesterol-lowering compounds.” That means it’s another low-carb veg (well, technically a fruit), that you can add to your heart-healthy food list.
Brussels sprouts have become a mainstay menu item at trendy restaurants and adding them to your meal can be a great way to get a good serving of fiber before your entree even comes. One serving only has eight grams of carbohydrates and eating them regularly supports the digestive system, immune health and heart health. If you’re buying Brussels sprouts to cook at home, look for ones that are firm, compact and bright green. “Remember that the leaves cook quicker than the core, so halve or quarter them when roasting or cut an ‘X’ at the bottom of the stem if you’re blanching them whole,” Sassos says.
Beets are another low-carb vegetable Sassos says is worth incorporating into your meals. Beets are especially a good source of potassium, a key nutrient for both heart health and the nervous system. It’s also a good source of folate, which is important for cellular health. Not sure what to do with your beets? Try incorporating them into a fettuccine dish with hazelnuts and goat cheese.
“All veggies, regardless of carbohydrate amount, should be part of a healthy eating plan,” Gans says. If you don’t like steamed veggies, she encourages experimenting with cooking them in different ways, such as grilling, roasting or lightly sautéing. Then, incorporate them into foods you like, such as pasta sauces, stews, soups or omelets.
Bookmark the list of 15 low-carb veggies highlighted here and make it a goal to cook with one new pick each week. Not only will your meals be more flavorful, but you’ll be upping your intake of fiber and other nutrients in the process.
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Emily Laurence is a freelance writer and certified health coach. She specializes in writing about mental health, fitness, healthy food and social justice issues. Emily spent six years as an editor and writer at Well+Good covering everything from food trends to serious issues like the opioid crisis in America, gun violence and women being sexually abused in hospital settings. She has also worked at Seventeen, Elle, and Twist magazines. Her work can regularly be seen online for publications including Forbes, Parade, Shape and The Huffington Post. Emily lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her cat Evie.
As a registered dietitian, Stefani Sassos is dedicated to evidence-based nutrition reporting. She takes the pulse of the latest nutrition research and trends, translating to readers what principles are science-backed and worth incorporating into a healthy lifestyle (and what fads are worth avoiding). She believes in the power of a plant-forward diet and is passionate about finding ways to incorporate nutritious produce into everyday meals and recipes.
Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a certified nutritionist and registered dietitian. She is the author of The One Small Change Diet and the host of the podcast The Keri Report. As a healthy food expert, Gans is a regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, Shape and Forbes Health.
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