Good Carbs and Bad Carbs in the Ketogenic Diet

Carbohydrate on a Ketogenic Diet

A ketogenic diet is all about manipulating good carbs and bad carbs as a part of your diet.

What kind of carbohydrate should you eat on a ketogenic diet?

All diets attempt to cause weight loss by manipulating one of the three macronutrients: proteins, fats, or carbs.

A ketogenic diet is no different.  The main goal of the keto diet is to take out the carbs that increase insulin and therefore cause fat storage and metabolic dysfunction.

For a more in depth look at insulin and glucagon balance in keto please see the post “Keto Diets:  Healthy or Harmful?”

In the Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet, I encourage those on keto to get all of their carb consumption from non-grain, non-starchy vegetables–the “good” carbs…

Manipulating Carbohydrate on a Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet

When doing a keto diet, the main goal is to decrease the carb consumption in your diet in order to decrease blood sugar and insulin levels.

That doesn’t mean we eliminate ALL carbs!  We want to simply change the source of our carbohydrate

The focus of my plant-based version of the ketogenic diet is to decrease the bad carbs that contribute to blood sugar levels.  At the same time, it increases the amount of good carbs that are needed for nourishment and proper metabolic function.

If you do a ketogenic diet the right way, you will lose weight and reverse your risk of developing all kinds of diseases.

So, the goal of the Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet is

  1. Take out the carbs that cause disease.
  2. Replace the carbs that have essential nutrients necessary for proper health.

So, don’t think of this as a “diet”.  Think of these changes as lifestyle changes.  Think of them as learning to eat what the body was designed to eat.  When you honor the design of your body, your body will heal.

 

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Where Good Carbs Come From

The source of the bulk of our carbohydrate consumption comes from plant material–whether on keto or not.

With the help of enzymes, carbohydrates break down in the intestines to create simple sugars that cross the intestinal wall and get absorbed into the blood stream.  How quickly they break down, to a large degree, depends on how refined they are.  They are the body’s source of quick energy.

When we eat too many carbs, especially if they are highly processed, they contribute the most out of all 3 macronutrients, to rises in blood sugar.

I have often seen keto diet recommendations for “starches” separate from the recommendations for “carbohydrates”.  Starches are carbohydrates.

So, when we talk about carbohydrates here, we’re referring to all plant foods: “starchy” and “non-starchy” vegetables, and all fruits.  Just like the other two macro-nutrients, there are bad and good carbs.

“Bad” Carbs

Bad carbs are carbs that have been highly processed, and/or they break down quickly when eaten which causes a quick and steep rise in blood sugar.  When blood sugar goes up, insulin goes up, and the excess energy gets stored as fat.

That cycle begins a cascade of hormone changes that causes inflammation.  The inflammation can cause damage to every tissue and organ in the body.  Blood sugar is highly inflammatory which causes damage to tissues like blood vessels and brain tissue!

This is why most health care practitioners will correctly assume that a diabetic patient has heart disease and is on their way to a heart attack–because the damage to the heart is happening in the presence of high levels of blood glucose.

So, in order to decrease inflammation, we MUST decrease our consumption of carbohydrates which starts that dangerous inflammatory cycle.  Those carbohydrates will include all, grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, and especially sugars.

Grains

Grains are the basis of most of the foods that Americans eat: bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, cookies, pastries, etc.  The really bad news about these foods is that they also contain the bad fats that also increase inflammation.  You can read about that in the “Good Fat/Bat Fat” article.

The “starchy” carbs include

  1. wheat and wheat by-products
  •      crackers,
  •      tortillas
  •      breads
  •      pastries
  •      pasta
  •      cookies

2. corn and corn by-products

  •      corn tortillas
  •      corn flour

 

3. rice

4. oats

5. millet

6. quinoa

Starchy Vegetables

Starchy carbs also include most root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and carrots, for example.  Sweet potatoes tend to raise blood sugar to a lesser extent than regular potatoes, but they will still raise the carb level of the diet enough to take one out of ketosis, for those who do a ketogenic diet.

Of course, root vegetables can have a lot of nutrition, but when people are trying to decrease inflammation by decreasing blood sugar, these will have to be kept out until health goals are met.

Legumes

Legumes are also a source of protein, but being a plant, they are mostly carbohydrate.  They include all the dried beans (pinto, black, kidney, lentils, soy beans, etc.) and peas.  They are the seeds from plants that produce pods.

Legumes contribute to blood sugar, so they also need to be eliminated as a regular food.  For more on legumes (and lectin content which is another source of inflammation) you can read this article on Dietary Sources of Inflammation.

Fruit

Fruit is not considered a “starchy” carb, but they are filled with sugar, and, of course, contribute to a rise in blood sugar.  The low sugar fruits (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries) will be ok for some people to eat.

Others (say, those who trying to reverse insulin resistance and diabetes), may still see their blood sugars rise too high even with low-sugar berries.  Those people should eliminate fruit entirely from their diet until they reach their health goals (e.g. weight loss, diet controlled blood sugar).

There are 2 fruit exceptions: limes and lemons.  These are so low in sugar that can be used for any teas, drinks, and recipes.

Dairy

Milk has fat and protein but also has plenty of carbohydrate in the form of lactose, and may be problematic for some, but not all.

Fermented dairy like yogurt or kefir are generally less problematic because the fermentation process uses up the sugars.  Longer the milk has been cultured, the less sugar it will have.

Other Sources of Bad Carbs

The MAJOR source of bad carbohydrate in the Standard American Diet is from sugar.  Sugar is in almost everything that is processed and sits on the grocery store shelf for any amount of time.  When you get serious about your health, you will become a label reader.

Sugars are named with an -ose and the end of the name: lactose, fructose, dextrose, galactose, etc.

My husband bought some pistachios at Costco that were flavored with salt, pepper, garlic, chili.  And I helped myself, because they were GOOD.  When I looked at the ingredient label, I saw that they also had plenty of dextrose.  Took me right out of ketosis.  Also, I might have eaten more than I should have.

So, become a label reader, and don’t buy the foods that contributes to disease.

“Good” Carbs

Good carbs are generally found in vegetables that grow above ground, and have beautiful bright colors: greens, reds, oranges, purples.

These colors are indicators of phytonutrients that are healing to the body.  These vegetables are also low in sugar, high in fiber, and high in vitamins and minerals, that are necessary for proper function of the body’s metabolic and biochemical functions.  These plants also include all the culinary herbs and spices.

In anti-inflammatory diets such as Keto diets, good carbs should be eaten liberally.  In fact, most of the volume of your plate would be taken up by these good carb vegetables.

Eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables and herbs and spices is the basis of my recommendations for a plant-based ketogenic diet.

Nuts and seeds are plant derived, so they have carbs but also have protein and fat.

Good carbs come from fresh plants with minimal to no processing, have bright colors, are full of fiber, and don’t raise blood sugar when eaten.

These good carbs includ:

  • all the dark leafy green lettuces,
  • spinach,
  • summer squashes,
  • all the cruciferous vegetables like Brussel sprouts, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.

Include a large daily salad with dark, leafy lettuce, and fatty types of vegetables like avocado, olives, and olive oil.  Add a little feta or other type of cheese, and dress it with some homemade dressing.

Counting Carbs

How much carbohydrate should you eat?  That depends on how strict you want your diet to be.  Here are some good general guidelines:

  • Strict Keto = 20 grams per day or less
  • Moderate Keto = 30 grams per day or less
  • Relaxed Keto = 50 grams per day or less

If you are just getting started with keto, a moderate to strict amount should be followed.  Most people will need to be at 30 grams or less to get into ketosis.  A relaxed version of the diet is for people who have met their weight loss or health goals and can start adding in a few more carbs daily to slow the ketosis down.

What 20 Grams of Good Carbs Look Like

It may seem like getting eating only 20 grams of carbohydrate wouldn’t be very much.  When you get that carbohydrate from vegetables, the volume of food is more than most people could eat.

The following quantities of foods contain about 20 grams of carbohydrate:

  • 16 cups alfalfa sprouts
  • 3 pounds spinach
  • 4 cups asparagus
  • 4 whole raw beets
  • 2 ½ cups cooked broccoli
  • 20 brussel sprouts
  • 9 cups mushrooms
  • 4 cups raw cauliflower
  • 1 whole eggplant (about 1 lb)
  • 11 Swiss Chard leaves
  • 4 cups raw kale
  • 25 cherry tomatoes
  • 21 cups Romain lettuce
  • 31 cups Red Leaf lettuce
  • 25 cups Green Leaf lettuce
  • 1 ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 9 cups mustard greens
  • ½ head of raw cabbage

Click Here for a Printable List of Good Carbs and Bad Carbs

Health Goals

Some of the “bad” carbs are only bad when you’re trying to stay in ketosis.  Weather you allow some of the types of carbs into your diet will depend on your overall current health and future health goals.  There may be a place for fruit and starchy vegetables in some people’s diets once health goals are met. For others, adding these foods back into their diet will continue to cause blood sugar rises and inflammation.

Set some long term health goals to help keep you on track.

When I started trying to eat in a way the would decrease inflammation, I had 2 goals I wanted to meet:

  1. Primarily I wanted to control a chronic asthma problem that cropped up in my 40’s. Since I knew that inflammation was the underlying issue, I was trying to decrease inflammation in those areas that I had control over.  I couldn’t control the pollen count, but I didn’t need to add to the inflammatory process with an inflammatory diet.
  2. I also needed to lose weight, although I didn’t recognize how badly I needed to until the fat started to melt off, and I began to feel so much more comfortable in my own skin.

Weight loss will be a goal for most of us (>60% of Americans are over-weight or obese), and will actually happen quite quickly when the bad carbs are taken out of the diet.

Other health goals will probably take more time.  Reversing disease is no small thing.  It does happen, but it won’t just take a few weeks.

You may need some specific tweeks to make the diet work for you.  Diabetics, for example, may have to add intermittent or extended fasting and be more strict on protein intake which can add to blood sugar.

Have questions about your specific situation?   Feel free to ask in the comments below!

Further Reading

For more information on the other two macronutrients, fat and protein, please refer to the articles: Good Fat, Bad Fat, and Good Protein, Bad Protein.

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Want to do one good thing for your body this week?  Eliminate sugar from your diet.  Sugar is the enemy.

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