Thursday, July 19, 2007

Rule Three: Vegetables & Fruits are Heart of Controlled-Carb

We hear much of a healthy diet is from eating fruits and vegetables. Research suggests there is a strong correlation between "good" health and "bad" health over the long-term when comparing the dietary habits of those eating a diet rich with fruits and vegetables to those consuming less than recommended levels.

Diets that strategically restrict carbohydrate are often criticized for lack of fruits and vegetables in the dietary approach. Much like the second rule getting lost in translation, from an allowance of a large variety of meats, poultry, fish, shellfish and game to a requirement to eat "fatty steaks, bacon, brie and cheeseburgers," by those unconvinced a low-carb diet is scientifically supported, rule three is often either ignored in the media and/or used to show how unsustainable carbohydrate restriction is in the long-term for someone to do forever.

How about we take a look, and see what the third rule actually says, and what it "pearls" it contains in both the short and long-term, and where vagueness may lead to misinterpretation:

Rule 3:
  • Eat no more than 20 grams a day of carbohydrate, most of which must come in the form of salad greens and other vegetables. You can eat approximately three loosely packed cups of salad, or two cups of salad plus one cup of other vegetables.

First, we know from the published books, that the Induction period is a minimum of two weeks; while one can, and many do, stay within the 20g of carbohydrate beyond two weeks, the above rule is in place for at least the first two weeks.

During this time, the person starting the low-carb diet is tasked with two things in this rule:

  1. limiting carbohydrate to just 20g a day and
  2. ensuring that most of those 20g carbs are from salad greens and other (allowed) vegetables.

As an example, the rule says this is "approximately" three loosely packed cups of "salad" (note not simply salad greens), or two cups of "salad" (again not simply salad greens) plus one cup of other (allowed) vegetables (without mention of raw or cooked state).

We also know that the plan includes a deduction of fiber, so the amount of non-starchy vegetables (and fruits which I'll get to in an upcoming post) - in cups - that one is expected to consume depends highly on which allowed vegetables are selected in a day. Regardless of which are included, a minimum 10g net (deducting fiber) must come from non-starchy vegetables!

We also plainly see that it is not *mandatory* to deduct fiber per the rule above; however, I strongly suggest folks do deduct fiber as it allows a greater intake of non-starchy vegetables, which are not only low in calories, but nutrient powerhouses. When you deduct the fiber, you're able to consume more essential nutrients than if you don't.

I've previously offered examples of how different selections of non-starchy vegetables may look in a day of eating on a plan allowing 20g net in a day. Once again, I am providing examples to emphasize, even at 20g net carbohydrate, where 10g net is the minimum, a low-carb plan - done properly - meets or exceeds intake recommendation of at least five servings per day in the Dietary Recommendations for Americans for fruits and vegetables.

Example 1

  • 1-cup green beans (cooked measure)
  • 2-cups Shredded Cos/Romaine Lettuce (raw)
  • 4-pieces Crimini Mushrooms (raw)
  • 1/4-cup Shredded Red Cabbage (raw)
  • 4 Cherry Tomatoes (raw)
  • 1-cup Spinach (raw)
  • Total Carbohydrate = 18g
  • Fiber = 8g
  • Net Carbohydrate = 10g
  • USDA Servings of fruits/vegetables = 5

Example 2

  • 1/2 Avocado (raw)
  • 3-cups Cos/Romaine Lettuce (raw)
  • 4 Cherry Tomatoes (raw)
  • 1/4 cup Shredded Red Cabbage (raw)
  • 1-cup Spinach (cooked measure)
  • 1/2-cup Broccoli Florets (raw)
  • 1/2-cup Sliced Cucumber (raw)
  • Total Carbohydrate = 24g
  • Fiber = 14g
  • Net Carbs = 10g
  • USDA Servings of fruits/vegetables = 6

Example 3

  • 2-cups Shredded Cos/Romaine Lettuce (raw)
  • 1/2-cup Cherry Tomatoes (raw)
  • 1-cup Spinach (cooked measure)
  • 1/2-cup Asparagus (cooked measure)
  • 1/2 cup Sweet Green Peppers (cooked measure)
  • Total Carbohydrate = 21g
  • Fiber = 9g
  • Net Carbs = 12g
  • USDA Servings of fruits/vegetables = 6

One can see from the examples above, depending on selections made from those fruits and vegetables allowed in the first two weeks, it is not difficult to meet the recommended intake of 5-or-more servings of fruits and vegatables.

The aim to include a minimum of 10g (of the 20g allowed) from non-starchy vegetables is a "must" in the rule above.

It is also clearly stated as a "minimum," and therefore understood that if you would like to include 12g, 15g or more from non-starchy vegetables in lieu of other foods that have carbohydrate, that is also allowed.

So, if one is cognizant of and desiring more than the minimum intake of fruits and vegetables, they are completely allowed to consume more - with the only restriction being not to exceed 20g net (deducting fiber) during the first two weeks.

Must you aim to consume half your allowed carbohydrate from fruits/vegetables? YES

Can you eat more fruits/vegetables (allowed ones), say 12g, 15g, 18g? YES

Can you deduct fiber? YES

Do you have to? NO (but doing so allows a greater intake of fruits/vegetables and associated essential nutrients)

With all that said, and focus on what all the rules mean for the long-term, I contend that one is expected to continue eating this level (as minimum each day) as they progress toward the long-term eating. I believe that this is one more "foundational" part of carbohydrate restricted diets in the long-term and something intended to be continued as one increases carbohydrate and includes a wider selection of foods, including more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and if desired, even whole grains.

Many folks say a low/controlled-carb diet is a way of life, yet find it difficult to take what they start with - 20g net (deducting fiber), of which most must be provided by non-starchy vegetables, a 10g minimum each day - and maintain that aspect as one solid foundation to build upon as they continue to lose weight and then maintain their weight.

Old eating habits start to creep back with more carbs; habits such as preferrentially selecting sweeter foods or grains (even if whole grain) with consumption of non-starchy vegetables waning as one re-introduces more carbohydrate.

If one takes this rule, and continues to extend it --- fully --- until they reach 40g net carbohydrate each day (deducting fiber), they will be consuming incredibly healthful levels of fruits and vegetables, and will be able to eat a very wide variety of them too. That is, until 40g carbohydrate is achieved in the diet during weight loss, one must always include half those carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables with each incremental increase in carbohydrate. (Beyond that, it is increasingly difficult to continue adding more non-starchy vegetables and fruits due to their bulk; you can, of course - it's just not as easy to do).

Now that isn't exactly stated explicitly in the rule, but it is from my experience and those I've given assistance, one significant contributor to maintenance of weight in the long-term. That's because if you're aware of and including a lot of fruits and vegetables (specifically non-starchy vegetables and low-glycemic load fruits) it is difficult to consume excess calories each day over the long-term.

It becomes much easier to consume excess calories when you "play" the carb game (like many play the "points" game with Weight Watchers) and make choices to stay within a number, rather than focus on quality of choice.

But if you're committed to making sure that, no matter what intake of carbohydrate you reach (60g, 90, 120g or more), that you always are sure you include at least 10g net minimum at the start and then 20g minimum (net) from non-starchy vegetables/low glycemic-load fruits as you continue along, you'll have a favorable calorie intake that helps maintaining weight easier.

As you add back carbs, this rule must remain in your eating habits, even if you only stick with 10g net as minimum (which I don't suggest you do) as you're learning in the beginning - you cannot add back carbs and eliminate or reduce how many vegetables and salads you eat each day and expect to maintain your weight using grains, nuts, fruits, etc. as your primary source of carbohydrate must always maintain a level of carbs from your vegetables and salad greens - even in maintenace.

This rule, like rule two, is taking you "back to basics" - helping you learn, step-by-step, how to nourish your body with high quality nutrients from real foods; over time you're encouraged to include a wider variety of non-starchy vegetables, low glycemic-load fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and more, and the starting basics for the diet should be extended out for the long-term; that is, establish now, at the start, that as part of your long-term habitual diet, non-starchy vegetables and low-GL fruits will be a large part of your overall diet - your body will thank you!


  1. "Diets that strategically restrict carbohydrate are often criticized for lack of fruits and vegetables in the dietary approach."

    Hopefully this notion will be further challenged by the new JAMA Women's Healthy Eating and Living Randomized trial of July 18, 2007, Vol. 298 No.3, which concluded that "among survivors of early stage breast cancer, adoption of a diet that was very high in vegetables, fruit, and fiber and low in fat, did not reduce additional breast cancer events or mortality during a 7.3-year follow-up period."

    This shows even more that there needs to be a healthy balance. Just eating fruits and vegetables for their own sake without adequate levels of protein and fat does not show any positive effect on our long-term health. Some people can only tolerate 30g of carbs, so the 10g rule is perfect for them, and as you said, the same rule is necessary for those who can tolerate more.

    With sugar out of the way, who knows how much of anything we really need for good health and how much we need to stave off the effects of a bad diet?

    Great post. Keep 'em coming, please!!!!

  2. Anonymous3:28 PM


    Thank you so much for this. I've been struggling with this vegetable thing for quite awhile, and it was a post you'd written on a low-carb forum containing the question, "are the vegetables the problem" that made a huge difference in the way I view my low-carb weight loss journey.

    And now this - this is excellent! You've given me a way to transition into OWL, and a way to think healthfully about maintenance. And believe me, I AM going to get there.

    What an incredibly helpful series this is. I'm going to go and read the others.

    Thank you for 'interpreting' this for us, and for providing such good guidance.

    Sara a.k.a. "Citruskiss" on ALC.