Healthy Keto Carbs
We may have started a new year, but the keto craze continues. With a staggering 3.9 million posts under the hashtag #keto on Instagram, the ultra popular diet shows zero signs of losing speed.
If you need a quick refresher on the basics of the ketogenic diet, here’s the CliffsNotes version: The medical diet first surfaced in the 1920s as a treatment for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy. These days, the high-fat, low-carbohydrate meal plan is followed primarily as a means for weight loss.
Keto meals are comprised of about 70%–80% fat, around 20% protein, and around 5% carbs. That means both “good” and “bad” carbs are basically off-limits on the keto diet. “Fruit, grains, starchy and root vegetables like parsnips, beans, lentils, sweeteners, baked goods, juices, smoothies, and sodas are cut out,” explains Carolyn Brown, RD, a nutritionist at Food Trainers in New York City.
“Whatever diet works best for you, veggies should really be at the forefront and make up at least half of your plate,” says Brown. Apart from their ability to lower chronic disease risk, vegetables provide fiber, phytonutrients, and bulk that helps keep us satiated.
The too-sweet-for-keto veggies are also packed with beta carotene, the antioxidant precursor to vitamin A, which promotes eye health and skin health and is critical for proper immune function.
“Right off the bat, cutting carbs can result in low blood sugar, low energy, moodiness, hunger, and exhaustion,” says Brown. “When people cut out carbs long term, we find that when they add them back in they regain all the weight lost and then some.” Plus, carbs are delicious and food is meant to be enjoyed, adds Brown. “It’s more about choosing the right ones and keeping quantity in check.”
Keto eaters are advised to significantly limit their intake of whole grains like oats, which serve up 14 grams of carbohydrates per half cup, nearly a third of the carbs allotted for one day.
Yet oats aren’t empty carbs. The breakfast staple contains soluble fiber that’s critical for maintaining heart health and lowering cholesterol levels (which may be even more important when you’re loading up on animal foods high in saturated fat while eating keto). Oats also contain some protein and important minerals like iron, folate, and magnesium.
Keto lovers like to think of fruit the same way most of us think of candy: as a once-in-a-while treat that’s not to be consumed daily. While low-glycemic fruits like berries are allowed in moderation on the ketogenic diet, fruits that fall higher on the glycemic index are on the outs.
A medium banana containing 27 grams of carbohydrates, then, is almost a sure keto no-no. While it’s true that diabetics may want to steer clear of the starchy fruit, avoiding bananas simply because they fall on the higher end of the carb spectrum isn’t necessary for everyone, especially since they provide potassium, vitamin B6, and fiber. Bananas also act as prebiotics—aka food for the good bacteria in your gut.
Eat a cup and a half of cooked lentils (which contains around 60 grams of carbs) and you’ve already exceeded your keto carb intake for the day. That leaves no room for fruits, veggies, whole grains, or dairy on your plate at any other meal. It’s not surprising, then, that keto eaters stay away from pulses.
Lentils are far from the enemy, though. Just one cup of cooked lentils contains around 18 grams of protein (as much as three eggs) and 15 grams of fiber; minerals like copper, manganese, zinc, and phosphorous; and no saturated fat, making them a plant-based nutritional powerhouse.
Still, if you do choose to try the ketogenic diet, be strategic about when you nosh on your allotted carbohydrates. “Consider eating your carbs pre-workout, as they give you a quick energy spike,” says Brown.
Nut lovers beware, cashews aren’t keto-friendly. Though most of us place nuts in the fat or protein category, they do contain carbohydrates, and the amount in certain varieties can add up when following a ketogenic meal plan.
A quarter cup of cashews, for example, will set you back about 10 grams of carbohydrates, roughly 20% of your daily recommended carb intake while eating keto. While we don’t suggest eating a whole cup of cashews, placing the nuts on your don’t-eat list isn’t necessary. Why? Eating an ounce of cashews—about 18 nuts—will give you 17 milligrams of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (an ounce of almonds, on the other hand, contains 0 mg). Early research even shows adding cashews to your diet may lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.