Picture the inside aisles of a grocery store. You’ll find canned vegetables, some sauces, perhaps a freezer aisle with dairy products and desserts. The rest of those shelves are taken up with grain-based options. Picture it again: see all those tortillas, taco shells, crackers and cookies? There’s a reason these products take up so much space: they sell. Nearly a quarter of the average American’s daily calories comes from grain-based carbohydrates: bread, rice, pasta and the packaged foods you’re picturing. Delicious, yes, but these foods can mean a lot of calories and a lot of carb overload on the average American body.
Cutting down on carbohydrates, especially from processed sources, has been shown to reduce risk for diabetes, stroke, heart disease and obesity in some populations. Research suggests that even just a moderate reduction in carbohydrates per day can make a noticeable difference in metabolic health, weight maintenance and blood sugar regulation.
Many recent lifestyle programs have touted the benefits of reducing carbs: from keto to Paleo to slow carb to Whole30, reducing carbs is a part of the plan. But whether you’re lowering your carb intake for energy, weight or to eat like your ancestors, it can feel like a bit of a disappointment to suddenly find yourself unable to eat a hearty sourdough or a bowl of spaghetti.
Fear not: there are lots of sneaky low carb diet swaps you can make for these favorites (many of which, we think, are even better than the originals). Next time you’re feeling a carb craving come on, reach for (or whip up) one of these and stay on track with your low-carb plan.
Many brands of whole wheat bread clock in at about 13 grams of carbohydrates per slice. (If you’re on an Atkins-style plan with a max daily carb intake of 20 grams, that one slice is putting you pretty close to the limit). Instead, there are tons of grain-free, paleo-style options that you can make at home. Against All Grain has a delicious recipe for Coconut and Arrowroot Tortillas which are low in carbs but high protein thanks to free-range eggs. We also love this homemade Almond Butter Bread that works great in loaf-form or as muffins.
While not all rice is created equal (brown, black and wild rice have more fiber and nutrients than white rice), this grain overall isn’t your best bet for a low-carb diet. Swap in riced cauliflower: simply steam florets, food process into a fine pulp and use a tea towel to remove excess moisture. It can accompany any dish where you might otherwise use rice and clocks in at just 5 grams of carbohydrate per cup (versus rice’s 45 grams per cup).
Ah, spaghetti and penne. You may miss them on a low-carb diet but you can still get a delicious noodle fix with some more compliant options. We love spiralized zucchini, sweet potato and carrots in place of wheat-based pasta. You can use a spiralizer, which functions like an apple corer to turn the meaty part of the veggie into long, thin strands, or you can use a mandoline, a vegetable peeler or (carefully!) a sharp knife to turn your sturdy veg into noodles. You can eat these raw or lightly steamed with any topping or sauce you like. As an added bonus, these contain more fiber, more vitamins and more micronutrients than wheat; plus, they’re filling, easier to digest and help you meet your recommended serving of veggies for the day.
You may also want to try out kelp noodles, a staple in many raw vegan diets. Kelp is a type of seaweed high in beneficial iodine and packed with prebiotic fiber that your gut will love. One serving (about a quarter of a package) contains just one gram of carbohydrate and less than ten calories. They’re crunchy and a little bit chewy with very little flavor of their own, so they absorb whatever flavor you add. (Rinse well to remove the saltwater taste.)
Many commercially prepared grain-based granolas have upwards of 35 grams of carbohydrate in a half-cup serving, thanks to their high sugar content and the types of grains in the recipe. You can still have a cereal-style breakfast, or top your yogurt with a bit of crunch, if you swap out standard granola for a version that swaps the grains for nuts and seeds. Toss 4 cups of chopped nuts and a handful of your favorite seeds (we like almonds, pepitas and sesame together) with ¼ cup of melted coconut oil, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and sea salt to taste. Bake at 300 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes on a parchment-lined baking sheet, stirring once. Simple and super low-carb.
For something entirely different, try out a coconut milk-based, unsweetened chia pudding by soaking ½ cup of chia seeds in 2 cups of coconut milk in the fridge overnight. Sprinkle with cinnamon and cacao. It’s better than any pre-made chocolate granola on the market.
When it comes to wine and cheese night, crackers can be a staple vessel for snacking. Unfortunately, because they’re easy to overdo and can contain upwards of 19 grams of carbohydrate in a 6-cracker serving, they’re best to avoid on a low-carb diet.
In their place, experiment with artfully cut veggies: rather than carrot and celery batons, shave your veggies into “chips” to get more of a cracker-like experience. Eggplant, sliced thin, drizzled in olive oil and baked at 400F for about 40 minutes can make great cracker substitutes. If you’re feeling ambitious, use leftover juice pulp (or veggies finely processed in the blender), along with some flax meal, olive oil and sea salt to make great homemade veggie pulp crackers.
– Amy Height