by Jenny Phillips our LowCarbTogether nutritionist
HIGH AND LOW-CARB VEGETABLES
Vegetables are largely carbohydrate. We like to eat a lot of them which is why we say low-carb not no-carb. They contain small amounts of protein and plenty of vitamins and minerals. Protein rich foods, such as pulses and quinoa, also have a significant carbohydrate content so make sure you are aware of this when you are eating according to the CarbScale. If your blood sugars remain too high, then you may need to avoid them.
So you need to know, therefore, which vegetables to add to your plate especially if you are following a ketogenic diet. Increasing your vegetable intake is a fabulous investment in your health, and it can really help in your quest to reduce starchy carbs like bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Simply increase the number of vegetables to compensate for the starchy carbs that you used to eat. This allows you to easily adjust your diet alongside family mealtimes, with only small tweaks when others might not need to, or want to, cut their own carb portions. We differentiate between non-starchy and starchy vegetables; the latter includes root vegetables which grow underground and concentrate sugars for storage, resulting in a higher glycaemic index (GI). These can be eaten in restricted amounts, whereas non-starchy vegetables can be eaten freely.
You can eat large amounts of fibre from non-starchy vegetables such as the lettuce family, spinach and chard, celery, asparagus, avocado, leeks ? and spring onions. So fill your plates with these and leave out the usual potatoes, rice, cous-cous, grains or pasta. To know the carb values of these food see the Carbs & Cals site.
Next on the list and still low in carbs are cabbage, cucumber, cauliflower, kale, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, aubergine (eggplant) and courgette. Go easy on these if you are keeping keto or strict low-carb for example, too many tomatoes, onions and peppers can take you over your limits.
Only a little higher are brussel sprouts and pumpkin.
Vegetables that grow below the ground or close to it usually contain more starch as they are literally energy stores for the plants above.
These include the radish family, celeriac, swede (rutabaga), carrots, beets and onions.
Higher still in carbs are all potatoes, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and butternut squash. Check leeks.
Medical note: If you are taking warfarin aka coumadin or jantoven being careful of certain vegetables, your health practitioner can advise you on this.
Although fruit is good for you, especially compared to refined and processed foods, it is still naturally quite sugary and so can raise your blood sugar levels. Generally, berries are very low sugar and can be enjoyed even if you are on a strict low-carb plan.
We have also used fruit as a natural sweetener in baking, such as the apple or pear in our Magic Muffins. Baked goods tend to be high in calories, so please view them as an occasional treat rather than an everyday indulgence. Be very careful with the amount of fruit you include in smoothies, as these can be extremely high in sugar.
Low-sugar fruit: berries and cherries
Medium-sugar fruit: apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums
Higher-sugar fruit: tropical fruits, such as banana, melon, pomegranate, mango and pineapple, and dried fruits
Protein-rich Foods Protein is a source of amino acids that are used in the growth and repair of our bodies. Just like a house is made of bricks, humans are primarily made of amino acids, some of which the body can make and others that have to be consumed within your diet.
We all need to eat good sources of protein – from animal foods and legumes to nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy. The amount of protein you require depends upon many factors, including your age, lifestyle and general health.
For most of us a protein intake of 50–100g per day is usually about right (this is not the same as the fresh weight). Vegetarians and vegans should consider their protein availability carefully and ensure that they have sufficient intake for good health; this is because vegetarian foods generally have a much lower protein density than animal products.
As much as we love vegetables, there is no getting away from the fact that animal proteins are extremely nutritious. Meat is a rich source of easily digestible protein that makes it life-sustaining, and a great source of essential vitamins and minerals.
Meat, along with fish, is often the most expensive item in your shopping basket, but you don’t need lots; a modest portion of 100–150g (3½–5oz) is plenty. Try to vary the meat you enjoy. While there has been a trend towards consuming white meat like chicken, we strongly advocate red meat, too, which is delicious and nutritious. The World Health Organization suggests that up to 500g red meat per week is perfectly safe, which equates to three to four portions per week.
Here are other ways to balance your budget:
Buy whole joints, like a whole chicken, rather than individual pieces.
Look for some of the cheaper cuts, like liver, which is just brimming with nutritional benefits, or stewing cuts.
Meat coming to the end of its sell-by date will be discounted – buy and freeze this for another day
Look at frozen meat and mince, it is nutritionally no worse than fresh.
Fish is a fantastic source of protein and also has the benefit of being particularly quick to prepare. For example, our Smoked Mackerel Fishcakes with Horseradish & Lemon Crème Fraîche take only 15–20 minutes to cook and requires minimal preparation.
Oily fish is so called because it is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids which are crucial for brain health and the nervous-system.
Try to eat oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, trout and herring, at least twice a week Non-oily fish, such as cod and seabass, can also be enjoyed regularly and takes on flavours very easily. Keeping fish in the freezer means you have a ready supply on hand; simply put it in the fridge to defrost overnight. There is no nutritional difference between fish that has been frozen or canned as soon as it is caught and fresh fish, but steer clear of fish in breadcrumbs, as this adds unnecessary carbohydrate.
Eggs are nature’s wonder food – widely available, economical and extremely nutritious. Although they can be eaten at any time of day, eggs are often the star of a low-carb breakfast and we have several recipes for the mornings, like Middle Eastern favourite Shakshuka. Do not be afraid that eggs might raise your cholesterol levels.
Since 2000, the Department of Health and the British Heart Foundation have changed their advice and removed limits to weekly egg consumption, as long as you eat a varied diet. Eggs are good for both brain and heart health.
Dairy contains both protein and fat. Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, have one of the highest protein contents – 35g per 100g compared to 16g in feta. That said, the strong flavour of Parmesan lends itself more to an addition to a recipe, whereas feta may be the main event.
Yogurt is a very popular food, though opt for a natural full-fat version and add your own fruit like berries. Low-fat fruit-flavoured yogurts can contain up to three times as much carbohydrate compared to full-fat Greek yogurt. Dairy is also a good source of calcium and vitamin D which helps to make bones strong. In the past, you may have restricted cheese and other dairy products due to their fat content.
The good news is that higher fat foods can actually contribute to health and weight loss provided that you are keeping your carbohydrate intake low.
Lentils and beans
This food group includes beans and lentils, which are high in fibre and extremely economical.. They contain protein but are moderately high in carbs, so our recipes mix them with non-starchy vegetables, fat and protein to reduce the spike in blood sugar that they may otherwise cause. Where pulses are added to dishes, they can bulk up a recipe, making it go further.
How frequently you enjoy pulses does depend on what your health goals are, and where you are on the CarbScale. If you are on a strict programme and are striving to get your blood sugars under control, then they are best avoided until your blood sugar levels have stabilized.
Some 10,000 years ago, we made the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers – this was the agricultural revolution. It enabled humans to settle in villages and was made possible due to the cultivation of grain – wheat, rice, corn, millet, barley – and potatoes. Farming did enable the human population to expand rapidly, as the food supply could be managed, but there were downsides.
Yuval Noah Harari points out in his excellent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “A diet based on cereals is poor in vitamins and minerals, hard to digest and really bad for your teeth and gums.” Quite a dietary insight from an anthropologist! Add to this the disruptive blood sugar effects when grain and cereal are overeaten, and you can see why the modern diet – up to 55 per cent of calories based on these foods – is a disaster.
If you are lean and healthy, you may be able to indulge occasionally, and in moderation, in some good-quality artisan bread like sourdough, which is more digestible due to the slow fermentation process. But we also give a very tasty low-carb bread recipe for Baguettes or brown rolls using psyllium husk powder.
The Caldesi family, being Italian, do love pasta! However, Giancarlo rarely, if ever, indulges even in gluten-free pasta, while Katie enjoys her favourite bowl of pasta and ragù every now and then. A low-carb option we all love is a creamy tomato sauce over some roasted vegetables.
If you have had a past history of regular dieting you are probably familiar with fat avoidance. Fat has been picked on as a dietary culprit because it contains more calories per gram than either protein or carbohydrate. But healthy fats, from natural sources, are an essential part of a low-carb diet. In fact, it can be easier to manage your total calorie intake with a higher fat diet, and this can help weight loss and improving metabolic health. There are two good reasons for this:
- Fat doesn’t drive your blood sugar or insulin levels upwards, which keeps your fat storage in check.
- Eating more fat helps to stabilize your appetite, so that you can eat less and feel less hungry
There is no need to be concerned about natural fats (including saturated fats) contributing to heart disease. The PURE study assessed the dietary intake of over 135,000 individuals across 18 countries and followed them for seven years. The study found that carbohydrate intake was linked with higher mortality, and fat intake was associated with both lower mortality and lower risk of cardiac events. Astonishingly, saturated fat had an inverse relationship with stroke – this means that the higher the saturated fat intake the lower the stroke risk. A further study suggests that fullfat dairy products may reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
The joy of a low-carb diet is that foods which you may have avoided for decades can now be enjoyed. Avocado, cream and butter are all on the menu, along with nuts, seeds and fatty (and tasty!) meat and fish. You can also use speciality oils in salads for extra taste, such as avocado, walnut or sesame seed oils.
Just bear in mind, if you want to lose weight, then limit or even avoid snacking on good fats, as you really want to burn your own body fat for energy between meals. In addition to cooking with butter or ghee, you can use olive oil and coconut oil. We love old-fashioned animal fats, like tallow and lard, which can be collected from roasting a joint. This reduces waste and makes food really tasty, something that makes the low-carb lifestyle effective in the long term; the food is so enjoyable that you will not want to go back to your old ways.
However, a word of caution: all fats are not equal and we recommend that industrially-processed vegetable oils, such as corn and sunflower oil, and margarines should be avoided. Though often advertised as ‘heart-friendly’, these oils are unstable when heated, producing toxic aldehydes that are prone to damage cells and cause inflammation.
In an Australian study of men who had suffered a recent heart attack, those consuming margarines in place of saturated fats like butter had increased rates of heart and cardiovascular disease. It is now generally regarded that the case against butter has been misguided, resulting in headlines like ‘butter is back’.
What kind of fat should I use and how much fat can I eat?
We love to use extra-virgin olive oil, butter, ghee, lard, dripping and sometimes coconut oil. The flavours they add to foods are wonderful and I like to think of them as old, tried and tested traditional ways to cook.
If you are looking to lose weight then don’t go eating too much fat but do enjoy a knob of butter with your veggies or dress them with olive oil. Fat will fill you up and satiate you which is why a low-fat diet always left me hungry. We love cream in our coffee but if I want to lose a couple of pounds after a holiday, I will leave this out, reduce the amount of nuts and cheese I eat or cut back on oily sauces such as pesto on my foods. With a little experimentation you should find your level of weight-loss or weight maintenance.
What about fatty cuts of meat?
I know, I used to trim the fat off bacon with a pair of scissors and carve around the fat from a roast or a steak and only eat the lean. What was I thinking? Now I eat it all and love crispy chicken skin, streaky bacon and pork crackling. If you are not eating the carbs you need a little more fat in your diet in order not to be hungry.