In today’s overwhelming world of health and wellness, I think we can all agree that we wish there were more clear-cut, specific answers to our most pressing dietary questions. When it comes to keto, some of these questions and answers can become even more muddled, as there are seemingly endless online resources, expert opinions, and controversy.
Chicory root fits right into this category, and you’re not alone if you find yourself thoroughly confused on the subject. After a whole lot of research and conversations with some of my most trusted friends and professionals in the field of nutrition and high – fat eating, I’ve outlined the ins and outs of using chicory root for a keto diet. Since you probably know by now that I am a firm believer that there truly is no one-size-fits-all approach, I want you to make the most informed decision as to whether or not chicory root has a place in your keto lifestyle.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty, let me give you the Cliff Notes: while chicory root does seem to be shrouded in controversy, I believe that the pros solidly outweigh the cons. I always want to offer a balanced and fair approach so have included information here from both sides of the argument, but I believe that the ability of chicory root to balance blood sugar, increase good gut bacteria, improve insulin sensitivity, promote healthy cholesterol levels and decrease systemic inflammation make it an important addition to your keto diet.
If you’ve ever enjoyed dandelion greens as a (bitter) prebiotic and digestive-supporting leafy veggie, you’re already familiar with chicory root. Chicory is also a member of the dandelion family, and its root has been long used as an herbal substitute for coffee, given its natural coffee-like flavor and nutritional benefits.
I was introduced to the many wonders of dandelion from my wise-beyond-her-time Grandmother, whom I affectionately referred to as “Mutti” (German for “mother”). She revered the health and beauty benefits of dandelion as a sacred herbal remedy capable of curing many modern-day ailments. To her, it was so much more than just a weed, and I’ve become confident that chicory root follows suit.
More recently, raw chicory root has been commonly used as a type of food additive in products like low-carb and keto bars, cereals and even as a nutritional supplement. Along with its nutty, sweet and comforting flavor, chicory root is also a rich source of dietary fiber on a keto diet. What’s more, chicory root’s specific type of fiber is naturally soluble and made of inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber that provides the body several incomparable health benefits. It’s the same type of fiber found in nourishing prebiotic-rich foods such as Jerusalem artichoke and bananas, with a much lower carbohydrate content.
Inulin can’t be directly digested by humans, but it does work to uniquely fuel our gut’s bacteria, especially enabling them to produce important chemicals like short chain fatty acids that have been shown to reduce our risk of certain inflammatory diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more. You can easily find chicory root at any local health food store or online, as a pre-made powdered coffee mix substitute or as a concentrated prebiotic fiber supplement.
While chicory root does contain carbs, it contains no net carbs, making it quite ideal for keto and low-carb eaters. Since chicory root’s fiber is resistant to digestion and absorption, it isn’t considered a source of calories or carbohydrates. Chicory root fiber also has a naturally sweet taste, and for this reason makes an ideal low-carb sweetener for desserts, bars, and other products in place of sugar.
Many chicory root proponents also speak to its digestive-supporting health benefits. In general, prebiotics are an important part of any diet for feeding gut bacteria and can potentially help to promote regular bowel movements and create a bulking effect in the colon.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: “what’s the downside?”
Interestingly, it is partially within the argument for whether or not chicory root helps digestive health where the controversy lies, and other health experts believe that it might actually cause more harm than good to the gut. It’s important to understand that chicory root is a processed, isolated fiber unlike whole food sources such as ground flax seed, for example.
The shorter chains of inulin are called Fructooligosaccharides, or FOS for short. FOS naturally occurs in a variety of plants like onion, leeks, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, and chicory root. While many of the health benefits mentioned above such as better gut health and more balanced blood sugar (in comparison to other types of non-caloric, artificial sweeteners), there is also the potential that FOS can cause some digestive distress.
One study found that FOS increased symptoms of cramping, diarrhea, bloating and loose stools, particularly in subjects that had an intolerance to fructose. Furthermore, those with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) could react poorly to FOS ingestion.
While less common, other studies have shown that chicory might cause an allergic reaction in some people, especially anyone with an allergy to birch pollen or ragweed. Symptoms can include an itchy, tingling mouth, pain and swelling. Lastly, pregnant women are advised to avoid chicory root as it has potentially been linked with miscarriage, and more research is needed as to its safety during breastfeeding.
On the flip side, inulin-containing foods like chicory root have also been very promising in their potential to support health, particularly looking at a balanced gut microbiome, decreased cholesterol levels and promotion of regular bowel movements in those who deal with constipation.
With all of these pros and cons, what’s right for you?
All of this information is certainly not meant to further confuse you, although I understand if you feel like you’re back at square one! The point is that everybody is biochemically unique, so ultimately you need to decide whether chicory root has a place in your keto lifestyle. Looking at the facts, you can start by knocking out some denominators that might put you at risk for side effects, such as if you already know you are allergic to birch pollen or you have IBS, in which case you’ll want to experiment and take things slow to see if chicory root can work for you.
Beyond this, I’d strongly encourage you to give chicory root a try and see how it makes you feel. Does it provoke any digestive upset or unpleasant symptoms, or on the flip side does it promote more regular bowel movements and seem to keep things running smoothly? If you’re unsure, use the rule of moderation to begin. Since more solid scientific research is needed, it could be worth alternating chicory root with other keto-approved sweeteners and fiber sources to make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for gastric distress.
My personal favorite when it comes to low-carb sweeteners is a pure monk fruit extract (I love to use it in my creamy keto ice cream recipe), along with a plethora of whole foods packed full of fiber like dark leafy greens, whole ground flax and chia seeds, avocado, cauliflower, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, nuts and seeds. Kick-starting your day with a low-carb green smoothie can make a world of difference for maintaining a healthy gut, along with a diet rich in nourishing fats.
I want to hear from you! What has your experience been with chicory root? Do you love it, or have you experienced digestive upset? We’re all in this together and sharing your story with others is truly at the heart of wellness.