The Best Vegetable Replacements for Carbohydrates

There’s a meme going around online that says something to the effect of “if cauliflower can become pizza, then you can become anything you put your mind to.” Funny, sure, but also on-trend given that one of the biggest movements in nutrition and healthy eating right now is swapping out certain veggies for higher-carb and less nutritious foods without feeling like you’re missing out.

Health Benefits of Low-Carb Replacements

Carbohydrates are macronutrients – like protein and fat – that your body need to function. Carbs are a form of sugar that the body breaks down to provide energy for cells and muscles to move. Starchy and sugary foods contain lots of carbohydrates, but so do fresh fruits and vegetables. Fiber is also a form of carbohydrate.

Many people consume too many simple carbs, like sugar and ultra-processed foods — think potato chips and other snack foods — and that can raise blood sugar levels. Over time, elevated blood sugar levels can develop into diabetes. And when you take in more energy than your body can use each day, the excess can become stored in the body as fat. That’s why many people say a low-carb diet can help you lose weight.

But your body still needs healthy carbohydrates, and there are some ways to substitute healthier sources of carbohydrates, which are sometimes called faux-carb veggies, for less healthy, higher care foods.

Swapping in faux-carb veggies for higher-carb foods can be a helpful tool for managing or losing weight.

Michele Smallidge, lecturer and director of the B.S. Exercise Science Program from the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, says faux-carb vegetables are “typically lower in calories” and usually are “less carbohydrate dense than typical starchy carbohydrates like wheat-based breads, pastas and other high-carbohydrate dishes.”

Dena Champion, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, notes that, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with higher-carb foods, “especially complex carbohydrates like whole grain pasta, rice or oatmeal,” there are times when swapping them out for low carb vegetables, like zucchini or cauliflower, is a good move.

Non-starchy, low carb vegetables are lower in calories than carbohydrate-dense breads, pastas and noodles. While faux-carb veggies contain complex carbs, they are full of other healthy nutrients your body needs.

Veggies also contain fiber and have a high water content, which makes them filling. They’re loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” which are plant-based compounds that can support overall health, “and most of us aren’t getting enough of them.”

How Faux-Carb Swaps Work

Replacing higher-carb and high-calorie foods in your diet with lower-carb veggies can be delicious and helpful for weight management for several reasons, says Michelle MacDonald, clinical dietitian supervisor at National Jewish Health in Denver.

Portion control. “The portion sizes are self-limiting. You typically you won’t overeat these,” she says. Because vegetables are high in fiber and filling, it’s less likely that you’ll overeat them than, say, a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream.

Satiety. “Second, they promote satiety, or a feeling of fullness,” she says, which can also help prevent overeating. The high fiber content and filling nature of vegetables contribute to a sense of satiety that can help you consume fewer calories overall.

Improved energy levels. These foods don’t spike your blood sugar as they’re breaking down and entering the blood stream, which means a steadier energy level and fewer crashes in blood sugar levels later. This is helpful for people with diabetes and others who are watching their blood sugar levels.

Fewer calories. “These are lower calorie foods to replace higher calorie starchy foods,” she says. Eating lighter foods that are lower in calories and higher in nutrients can help you lower your overall calorie intake, which can lead to weight loss.

Better fuel for fat-burning. “Eating more non-starchy vegetables can encourage your body to burn more fat as fuel,” MacDonald says, which can also help you drop weight.

In thinking about how to replace veggies for higher-carb foods like potatoes, rice and bread, Champion says that “sometimes, carbohydrates are a vehicle for our food. For example, noodles for sauce, bread for a sandwich or crackers for a dip. Think about how a vegetable might work to replace that vehicle.” It just takes a little effort to uncover and a bit of ingenuity in the kitchen.

Top Low-Carb Veggies for Swapping

Here are eight suggestions for high fiber, low carb vegetables you can use to replace higher-carb foods:

— Cauliflower.

— Squashes and zucchini.

— Shirataki noodles.

— Sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

— Garden vegetables like bell peppers, celery and kale.

— Carrots and other root vegetables.

— Cabbage, lettuce and mushrooms.

— Beets and eggplants.

[SEE: 12 Fruits You Can Eat on a Low-Carb Diet Plan.]

Cauliflower

For rice, mashed potatoes and pizza dough, use cauliflower instead.

Cauliflower has become something of the poster-vegetable for faux-carb swaps. Cauliflower can be riced, by pulsing in a food processor until small bits form that mimic the texture and characteristics of rice.

Cauliflower can also be mashed like potatoes, Smallidge says. “Using a potato masher, mash steamed cauliflower to get rice and then whip it to get a fluffy result for mashed. Add a little oil, garlic” or other flavors to make a rich-tasting but lower calorie alternative to traditional mashed potatoes.

She also notes that cauliflower has become a common means of lightening up pizza dough,, “even in some frozen pizzas.” Or you can make your own by “whipping up a crust with cooked cauliflower, eggs and a little cheese” that you then top with your own favorite pizza toppings.

[SEE: Fresh, Frozen or Canned: What Is Best?]

Squashes and Zucchini

For pasta, swap in squashes and zucchini.

It seems like every summer, casual gardeners find they have an overabundance of summer squash or zucchini. They grow easily and produce cucumber-like fruit that doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own but can become a wonderful backbone in a variety of dishes.

They also make great swapping options for higher carb foods like noodles. Smallidge recommends using a spiral cutter or “spiralizer to turn squash into noodles, then boil or stir-fry and top with your favorite sauce.”

Along the same lines, spaghetti squash’s natural tendency to pull into long strands — a characteristic that lends to its name — makes it an obvious choice for replacing high calorie and carb-based wheat noodles.

Champion notes that for some people, “completely replacing carbs with veggies doesn’t feel satisfying,” so she recommends using some carbs alongside the faux-carb veggies. “For example, mix some whole grain spaghetti with zucchini noodles and top with marinara and spinach.”

Shirataki Noodles

Instead of wheat-based noodles, try shirataki noodles.

Dthia Kalkwarf, a diabetes nurse with National Jewish Health in Denver says, “I love using shirataki noodles in place of noodles, cauliflower, potatoes or rice.” Shirataki noodles are made from the konjac yam native to southeast Asia. Sometimes called “miracle” or “zero-calorie noodles,” shirataki swap well for other kinds of noodles.

“They’re probably my favorite replacement, and I use them regularly as spaghetti or in Thai dishes or stir-fry,” Kalkwarf says. “They’re very filling and have almost no carbohydrates — even less than in spaghetti squash.”

Sweet Potatoes and Butternut Squash.

For mashed potatoes and pasta try swapping for, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

Sweet potatoes are starchy root vegetables that taste sweeter than their white potato counterparts, but they still make frequent appearances in paleo and keto diet recipes. That’s because these versatile tubers have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, and thus have less of an impact on blood sugar levels, which can be useful for people with diabetes who are managing their blood sugar levels. They’re also full of fiber and loaded with vitamins A and C, which white potatoes don’t have a lot of.

You can also take this swap one step further and opt for lower-carb butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes in many recipes. Use these golden gourds to replace mashed potatoes and pasta in casseroles, pizza dough, noodle dishes and stews.

Garden Vegetables

Try swapping potato chips for bell peppers, celery, kale and carrots.

Love snacking on a bag of salty, fried potato chips? You can still get that savory crunch you love with fewer calories and less sodium by making your own vegetable chips.

Kalkwarf says you can turn “just about anything” into a chip. “Carrots, zucchini, green beans and asparagus” are all great options to cut into “chip or French fry forms.” They can then be brushed with olive oil, seasoned and baked on a baking sheet to bring out that crunch.

Champion adds that veggies slices work great in place of crackers with hummus or any other kind of dip. “If I’m really craving the crackers, I do both,” she says.

[READ:10 Healthy Fall Vegetables You Should Eat.]

Carrots and Other Root Vegetables

For flour-based or crunchy snacks like pretzels and crackers, substitute carrots and other root vegetables.

Like sweet potatoes and squash, carrots and other root vegetables can stand in for starchy white potatoes in a wide variety of dishes. They also lend themselves to being chipped or munched on plain as a replacement for pretzels and other snacks you might reach for when sitting around watching television.

You can also mash up carrots and other root veggies like parsnip and turnip seasoned with garlic, onion and some olive oil to make a delicious dip. These dips pair well with veggie chips made from kale or beets.

Smallidge recommends roasting root veggies with some oil and salt to make chips or fries or turn them into flour to make a wide range of other foods. “Pancakes, pastas, gnocchi and lasagnas can be made with whole squash, parsnips, cauliflower and leeks.

To make flour from root vegetables, you’ll need a food dehydrator or an oven set on low heat for a few hours to dry out the vegetable. Once it’s dry, grind it up finely in a food processor or coffee grinder.

Cabbage, Lettuce and Mushrooms

Replace sandwich bread with cabbage, lettuce and mushrooms.

Many of us have a weakness for bread and look to sandwiches for a quick snack or meal when we’re really busy. But you don’t have to use all those carbs to have a satisfying lunch. MacDonald recommends swapping large cabbage or lettuce leaves for slices of bread or tortillas in sandwiches and other grab-and-go foods. Stuff them with tuna fish, beans, hummus or stir-fried vegetables to make a delicious, low-carb and nutritious meal in no time. Champion says Swiss chard also works well as a sandwich wrap or taco shell.

Smallidge recommends using large mushrooms, such as Portobello mushrooms, “as buns for sandwiches” or burgers. Many vegetarians have been relying on these large, meaty mushrooms to replace meat in burgers and similar dishes for eons. It’s not a far leap for these deliciously umami fungi to become a bun too.

Beets and Eggplant

For lasagna, incorporate beets and eggplant.

MacDonald says beets and eggplant can be cut into the shape of lasagna noodles and used to replace these high-carb options in lasagna and other similar dishes.

When using this approach, Champion recommends alternating a layer of pasta with a layer of lengthwise-cut eggplant strips. This creates a really delicious lasagna that doesn’t completely replace the pasta but augments it with more nutrients and a lot of flavor.

Eggplant also makes a delicious replacement to standard French fries. Just cut into a French fry shape, season and bake or lightly fry in olive oil to get a satisfying, savory snack or side dish with fewer carbs.

Experiment and Find a Balance

When switching to lower-carb eating, MacDonald recommends keeping it simple. “I pile my plate with non-starchy veggies so they edge out the starchy grains and other starches,” like white potatoes. “I still eat grainsand starches, just smaller portions.”

When it comes to faux-carbs, the sky’s the limit, MacDonald says. “Be open-minded. Try and keep trying. It takes time to acquire a taste for different foods and a different way of eating,” and you may surprise yourself by just how enjoyable some of these swaps become.

Champion adds “there’s no reason to replace all your carbohydrates with vegetables. However, given that most Americans eat few vegetables, replacing carbs with veggies can be a good way to sneak in a few extra nutrients.”

Smallidge agrees that you can make virtually anything with a little creativity that will support a healthy weight and lifestyle. “Low-carb eating not only shaves off a few extra calories in your diet — a goal to help with weight loss — but also can mean adding higher nutrient dense foods to as well. Most of the swaps from eating highly processed carbs like white breads and pastas to a nutrient dense vegetable can also increase the nutrient content including antioxidants, phytochemicals, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals and fiber.”

More from U.S. News

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Healthy Meals You Can Make in 10 Minutes

Top 10 Healthy Foods to Have in Your Kitchen

The Best Vegetable Replacements for Carbohydrates originally appeared on usnews.com

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