Keto vegetables – the best and the worst
What vegetables are best on a keto diet? There’s a simple rule:
- Above ground vegetables are generally lower carb and therefore the best keto options.
- Below ground vegetables, a.k.a. root vegetables, contain more carbs and should be consumed with care, especially potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Carb counts are provided as net carbs per 100 grams (3½ ounces) serving.1 The options to the left are solid keto vegetables.
Note that while the below ground vegetables range from 7 to 17 carbs per 100 grams, the above ground carbs pictures are all under 5 carbs per 100 gram serving. Quite a difference!
A word about onions: while they grow below ground, and are higher carb, onions as a seasoning can be added to foods because generally people do not eat too many onions at once. Be careful of caramelized onions, or sautéed onions, as these are easier to consume in larger amounts. Green onions, or scallions, as a topping for salads and dishes are fine in modest amounts.
Vegetables on keto
All foods are comprised of macronutrients – carbs, protein, and fat. While meat and most dairy are primarily made up of protein or fat, vegetables contain primarily carbs. On a strict ketogenic diet, with fewer than 5% of calories from carbs, it’s important to know which veggies are the lowest in carbs, particularly if your goal is to consume fewer than 20 grams of carbs per day.
On a keto diet, vegetables with less than 5 net carbs may be eaten relatively freely — have them with butter and other sauces!3 It is hard to over-eat spinach, zucchini, lettuce, asparagus and kale on a keto diet. These can be considered keto vegetables.
You will have to be a bit more careful with slightly higher carb vegetables like bell peppers (especially red and yellow ones), Brussels sprouts, and green beans to keep below 20 grams of carbs a day on a keto diet. Their carbs can add up. One medium sized pepper can have 4-7 grams of carbs.
While tomatoes are technically a fruit, you can have them on a keto diet, but again be careful as their carbs are a bit higher and, combined with other foods, may take you up over 20 grams net carbs a day if you consume too much.
If you are doing a more moderate or liberal low-carb diet, with more than 20 grams of carbs a day, you can eat as many above ground vegetables as you desire.
Other helpful guidelines
Here are two more general rules that can help you choose lower-carb and keto vegetables:
- In general, keto friendly veggies are those with leaves — all types of lettuces, spinaches, etc. are good ketogenic options.
- Green vegetables tend to be lower in carbs than veggies with a lot of color. For example, green cabbage is lower in carbs than purple cabbage. Green bell peppers are also somewhat lower in carbs than red or yellow peppers.
Discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor. Full disclaimer
Vegetables and fat
You can use keto vegetables as a vehicle for fat by seasoning cooked vegetables with butter. Better yet, sauté or roast them in lard, coconut oil, avocado oil, or ghee. If you eat dairy, you can make a cream sauce with heavy cream, cheese, and/or cream cheese.
Another excellent way to add fat to vegetables is by dipping them in salad dressings or other dipping sauces, or simply adding olive oil to your salad.
Note that if you have plenty of excess weight that you want to lose, you may not want to overdo the addition of fat. You may want to let your body burn excess body fat, instead of extra added dietary fat. In this case, just eat enough fat to not feel hungry (learn more).
Top 10 keto vegetables
- Cauliflower – 3 g. The darling of many keto recipes, cauliflower has a mild flavor and is very versatile. It’s used as the base of staples such as cauliflower rice and cauliflower mash. Have a look at our top 18 cauliflower recipes
- Cabbage – 3 g. The humble cabbage becomes a standout when sautéed in butter or used as the base of our popular Asian cabbage stir fry. See more of our top cabbage recipes
- Avocado – 2 g. Technically a fruit, but let’s not get fussy when it is chock full of nutrients, healthy fat, and delicious to boot!6 Whether eaten plain in slices, mashed as guacamole, or even baked, avocado is a keto go-to, with so many ways to be enjoyed. Here’s some great avocado recipes
- Broccoli – 4 g. A versatile, tasty, and simple replacement for pasta, rice or potatoes. It can be steamed, fried in butter, drizzled in cheese sauce, baked au gratin, roasted with bacon… with so many ways to prepare it you’ll be saying ‘more trees, please!’. Check out these recipes
- Zucchini – 3 g. Missing potatoes? Try our zucchini fries or zucchini chips. Zucchini can also be spiralized to make keto pasta, like in this keto carbonara. More recipes
- Spinach – 1 g. Extremely low-carb, spinach is one of the most keto-friendly vegetables. It can be used raw in salads, baked into chips, sautéed, or creamed. Check out our very popular keto frittata with fresh spinach or any of our many other spinach recipes
- Asparagus – 2 g. Very filling, highly nutritious, and very low carb, asparagus was made for a high-fat sauce such as hollandaise or béarnaise. It’s a great keto vegetable. Top recipes
- Kale – 3 g. Although slightly higher carb than spinach, use kale raw in salads or bake into chips, sauté in lard, or use as a base instead of pasta. Recipes
- Green beans – 4 g. Green beans can be roasted, steamed, or stewed, but may taste even better cooked in some type of fat such as bacon fat or butter. Recipes
- Brussels sprouts – 5 g. These baby cabbages pack a lot of flavor and are excellent roasted until crispy or served in a creamy sauce. Recipes
Veggie sticks, or crudités, with a high-fat dipping sauce are good keto choices for snacks and before dinner appetizers. Be careful, however, with carrots as their carbs do add up.
Peas and beans, etc.
Although they all grow above ground, legumes like peas, beans and lentils and grains like corn and quinoa are all fairly high in carbs – so they are not good keto options.8 If you are keeping below the recommended 20 grams of carbs a day on keto, avoid eating them.9
Grains and sugarEven though wheat grows above ground, it’s usually not considered a vegetable.10 It’s a grain and it’s high in carbs. Anything made from wheat flour – breads, cereals, pastas, baked goods etc. – contains carbs that are rapidly digested into glucose and will raise blood sugar.11 Whole grain products (brown bread), while praised by many, seem to have very similar effect on blood glucose.12 Avoid on keto.
Most sugar comes from plants, too — either sugar cane, beets, or frequently, corn, in the case of high-fructose corn syrup. These are not healthy and should not be eaten on keto. High-fructose corn syrup, which is added to many products such as sodas, candies, sweets, cookies, might be even worse than regular sugar.13 It is very high carb and is not keto-friendly at all, and the same goes for honey or maple syrup. Learn more about keto sweeteners
Keto vegetable recipes
Top cauliflower recipes
Cauliflower may be the most popular keto vegetable of all. Here are our top cauliflower recipes:
Top cabbage recipes
Cabbage is another very versatile keto vegetable. Here are our top cabbage recipes:
Net carbs = digestible carbs, i.e. total carbs minus fiber.
The numbers are for uncooked vegetables. The carb content per 100 grams is generally modestly lower in cooked form.
For example, while raw broccoli has about 4 grams of net carbs per 100 grams, cooked broccoli has about 3 grams. The main reason for this difference is an increase in water content in cooked vegetables.
The numbers are taken from online databases, like the USDA database. Note that there are minor differences between these databases. The reason could be that different breeds of vegetables can differ in carb content, and there can be seasonal variation etc. In cases where there are significant differences between databases we have attempted to choose a median value. ↩
Net carbs = digestible carbs, i.e. total carbs minus fiber.
The numbers are for uncooked vegetables. The carb content is often slightly lower in cooked vegetables, but the difference is not too large. ↩
The fear of saturated fats, like butter and lard, appears to have been completely misguided:
Nutrition Journal 2017: The effect of replacing saturated fat with mostly n-6 polyunsaturated fat on coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [strong evidence] (analysis)
Vegetables are generally considered very healthy, possibly because of the vitamins and minerals they contain. However, the belief in the potential healthiness of eating vegetables is mainly based on weak observational data, so it’s hard to know for sure.
British Medical Journal 2014: Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies [weak evidence for a modest positive effect of eating vegetables on heart health and longevity]↩
The ranking is somewhat subjective, and open for debate. ↩
Furthermore, grains are usually not considered vegetables at all, as they are the seeds of grasses:
The recommendation to stay below 20 grams of carbs a day on keto is mainly based on the consistent experience of experienced practitioners, and stories from people trying different levels of carb restriction [weak evidence].
There is not yet any RCT that has actually tested two low-carb diets of varying strictness head-to-head. But RCTs of strict low-carb diets appear to often show better results, compared to RCTs of more moderate or liberal low-carb diets.
This makes logical sense: if something has an effect, doing more of it often has a stronger effect.
Even foods made from wholemeal flour is relatively rapidly digested and raises blood glucose quickly, though slightly less fast than foods made from white flour:
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2018: The effects of whole-grain compared with refined wheat, rice, and rye on the postprandial blood glucose response: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials [strong evidence]
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2018: The effects of whole-grain compared with refined wheat, rice, and rye on the postprandial blood glucose response: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials [strong evidence] ↩
High-fructose corn syrup is slightly higher in fructose compared to regular sugar. Fructose – in excessive quantities – may have worse long-term metabolic effects than other carbohydrates:
The Journal of Clinical Investigation 2009: Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans [weak evidence]