Vegetable Superstars

Full of fiber and phytonutrients, veggies are one of the best sources of carbohydrates.Not only do veggies offer wondrous variety in taste and texture, but their virtues are also firmly grounded in scientific research. If you choose the right ones, vegetables are high-powered nutrient packages. These advantages come—once again, if you choose your vegetables carefully—at a relatively low metabolic cost. That means that you are getting high fiber and phytochemicals with relatively low numbers of calories and carbohydrates.

Fortunately, the vegetables densest in nutrients happen to be those lowest in carbs. Low-sugar veggies (including salad greens) are nutrient powerhouses, dense in fiber and antioxidants, but low on the glycemic index. That's why escarole, spinach, parsley, watercress, arugula and their dark-green cousins are A-list dietary bargains, as well as collard greens, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, onions, pumpkin, scallions, snow peas, spaghetti squash, string or wax beans, Swiss chard, tomato, turnips, water chestnuts and zucchini.

The most important criterion in choosing vegetables is antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants are a special group of vitamins and phytochemicals in vegetables that protect cells against the ravages of environmental pollution, stress, disease and aging. Eat more antioxidants and you'll stay healthier and younger longer. Figuring out which veggies offer the most antioxidant protection per gram of carbohydrate can be tough. Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Mass., studied the antioxidant capacity of common vegetables and assigned each vegetable an antioxidant score1.

It's All in the Ratio

Dr. Atkins has taken that score and divided it by the number of grams of carbohydrate in the same-size serving of each vegetable or fruit, computing what he now calls the Atkins Ratio. The higher the number, the more antioxidant protection you get per gram of carbohydrate.

Choose vegetables with a high Atkins Ratio to get the most antioxidants per gram of carbohydrate. This may sound like just a bunch of numbers, but the impact is dramatic: Dine on broccoli sautéed in olive oil and garlic and you're getting serious nutrition. Eat a baked potato topped with margarine and you'll just get pudgier.

As you can see, garlic is in a class by itself. The cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage—which extensive research has shown to be a group of potent cancer fighters, are well up there. Onions also play a starring role.

The following Atkins Ratio numbers show how widely amounts can vary and point to the vegetables you should select:

The Atkins Ratio

  • Garlic (1 clove) : 23.2
  • Leaf lettuce (1 leaf): 8.2
  • Kale (½ cup raw): 6.5
  • Onion (1 tablespoon): 6.2
  • Iceberg lettuce: 5.8
  • Spinach (½ cup raw): 5.0
  • Broccoli (½ cup raw): 3.2
  • Red bell pepper (½ cup raw): 2.5
  • Brussels sprouts (½ cup): 2.3
  • Beets (½ cup): 2.1
  • Cauliflower (½ cup): 1.8
  • Eggplant (½ cup): 1.6
  • Celery (½ cup raw): 1.5
  • Cabbage (½ cup): 1.2
  • Green beans (½ cup): 0.8
  • Cucumber (½ cup raw): 0.7
  • Carrots (½ cup): 0.4
  • Corn (½ cup): 0.3
  • Sweet potato (½ cup): 0.15
  • White potato (½ cup): 0.09

Selected References:

  1. Cao, G., Sofic, E., Prior, R.L., "Antioxidant Capacity of Tea and Common Vegetables," Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 44, 1996, pp. 3426-3431.