Making sensible food swaps for weight management
There’s a meme going around online saying 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.
With carb-swapping, you replace higher-carb, starchy foods with less-starchy vegetables. The idea is a sound one for people looking to lose weight because it creates a calorie deficit, which is critical to losing weight.
Why low carb is a top trend
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient — like protein and fat — that your body needs to function. Carbs are a form of sugar that the body breaks down to provide the energy that cells and muscles use to fuel their functions. 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. Plus, when you take in more energy than your body can use each day, the excess gets stored in the body as fat. Avoiding that excess is why many people say a low-carb diet can help you lose weight.
But your body still needs healthy carbohydrates. Luckily, there are some ways to substitute healthier sources of carbohydrates, which are sometimes called faux-carb veggies, for less healthy, higher-carb foods. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines Americans recommend that adults consume two and a half cups of vegetables per day. What’s more, only 10% of adults are eating the recommended daily serving of vegetables.
Swap faux carbs for high-carb foods.
Swapping in faux-carb veggies for higher-carb foods can be a helpful tool for managing or losing weight.
Michele Smallidge, a lecturer and the director of the Exercise Science Program in the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, says faux-carb vegetables tend to be 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, such as zucchini or cauliflower, is a good move.
While faux-carb veggies contain complex carbs, they are also 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,” Champion says.
How veggie-carb replacements work
Replacing higher-carb and high-calorie foods in your diet with lower-carb veggies can be delicious and helpful for weight management, says Michelle MacDonald, clinical dietitian supervisor and certified diabetes educator at National Jewish Health in Denver. Among the reasons why this approach works is:
— Portion control. “The portion sizes are self-limiting. You typically won’t overeat these,” MacDonald 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. The high fiber content and filling nature of vegetables contribute to a sense of satiety that can help you consume fewer calories overall and thus prevent overeating.
— Improved energy levels. These foods don’t spike your blood sugar as they’re breaking down and entering the bloodstream, which means a steadier energy level and fewer crashes in blood sugar levels later. This is helpful for people with diabetes or others who are watching their blood sugar levels.
— Fewer calories. “These are lower-calorie foods to replace higher-calorie starchy foods,” MacDonald 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. This can also help you drop weight.
In thinking about how to substitute 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.”
For example, a lettuce leaf can take the place of a slice of bread when making a turkey sandwich. It just takes a little effort to uncover and a bit of ingenuity in the kitchen.
Here are nine suggestions for high-fiber, low-carb vegetables you can use to replace higher-carb foods:
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 turned into rice by pulsing it 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 favorite pizza toppings.
2. Squash and zucchini
For pasta, swap in squash 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 has a natural tendency to pull into long strands — a characteristic that lends to its name — and is 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.”
3. Shirataki noodles
Instead of wheat-based noodles, try shirataki noodles.
Shirataki noodles are made from the konjac yam, which is native to Southeast Asia. Sometimes called “miracle” or “zero-calorie” noodles, shirataki swaps well for other kinds of noodles as well as potatoes or rice.
Try swapping shirataki noodles for conventional spaghetti in Italian fare or for egg noodles in Thai or Chinese cuisine and stir-fries. Because these noodles are mostly water and fiber, they’re very filling while being extremely low calorie. A 4-ounce serving has just 10 calories and 3 grams of fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
4. 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.
This means they 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.
5. Garden vegetables
Love snacking on a bag of salty, fried potato chips? Try swapping potato chips for bell peppers, celery, kale and carrots. You can still get that savory crunch you love with fewer calories and less sodium by making your own vegetable chips.
Garden vegetables can also easily be chipped. In particular, carrots, zucchini, green beans and asparagus are all great options to cut into thin rounds and bake with a little olive oil on them to bring out that crunch.
Veggie 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,” Champion says.
6. 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 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, such as parsnip and turnip, and season 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 turning 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,” she says.
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 vegetables. Once they’re dry, grind them up finely in a food processor or coffee grinder.
7. 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 substituting 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 delicious, umami fungi to boost the flavor and become a bun, too.
8. 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 this high-carb option in pasta meals 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 flavors.
Eggplant also makes a delicious replacement for 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.
9. Brussels sprouts
Jennifer Welper, a certified executive chef and the wellness executive chef with the New Mayo Clinic Diet in Rochester, Minnesota, says that substituting lower-carb, higher-nutrition veggies for higher-carb foods is a key component of the Mayo Clinic Diet’s volume eating approach.
One of her favorite swaps is to replace some potatoes with Brussels sprouts in breakfast potatoes, along with roasted cauliflower, carrots and peppers to reduce the amount of potatoes you’re using.
This “adds more color and more volume (of food) with a bit less calorie-dense foods,” she explains. That’s also a good move if you’re trying to lose weight.
Experiment, and find a balance
When switching to ower-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 grains and 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.” 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.”
“While a calorie deficit is required to cause the body to lose weight, this doesn’t mean that less is always better,” explains Amber Core, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Our bodies still rely on energy and nutrients to function.”
So when adjusting your diet to accommodate weight loss, it’s all about finding the right balance between calories in and calories out to create sustainable change. In the end, a little creativity can go a long way toward supporting 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 as well,” Smallidge says.
This can have big benefits for overall health. “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,” she adds.
9 Best vegetable replacements for carbs
— Squash and zucchini.
— Shirataki noodles.
— Sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
— Garden vegetables, such as bell peppers, celery and kale.
— Carrots and other root vegetables.
— Cabbage, lettuce and mushrooms.
— Beets and eggplant.
— Brussels sprouts.
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The Best Low-Carb Vegetables originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 03/07/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.