Carbohydrates’ often-maligned nutritional reputation results from a misconception that all carbs are “bad.” In truth, carbohydrates (or carbs) are a top-tier macronutrient (along with fats and proteins) that provides your body with daily energy.
Most carbs are naturally sourced from grains and other plant-based foods. They perform several key functions that help the body’s systems to function smoothly. In addition, food manufacturers often add carbs (such as starch or extra sugar) to processed foods. These are generally low-quality carbs without much nutritional value.
Although carbs can provide many nutritional benefits, a growing number of people are choosing to severely restrict their carb intake. As a result, grocery stores, online retailers, and health food stores are increasingly stocking a feast of carb alternatives. Most offerings are surprisingly delicious while packing lots of nutritional value.
How Carbohydrates Benefit Your Body
Carbohydrates help your body to run like a well-oiled machine. They contribute to your health and well-being in three important ways.
High-quality Energy Source
Carbohydrates provide energy to your entire body. These versatile compounds fuel your brain, heart muscles, kidneys, and central nervous system. Fibre is a specialized type of carbohydrate that gives you that “full” feeling and keeps your digestive system moving along smoothly.
Consistent Weight Control
Consuming lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits can contribute to good weight control. The foods’ fibre content and bulk help you to feel fuller on fewer calories. There is little evidence that a balanced diet full of healthy carbs causes you to gain weight or become obese.
Protection from Disease
Whole foods’ dietary fibre, combined with whole grains, may help to decrease your cardiovascular disease risks. In addition, fibre may lessen your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Medical Reasons for Carbohydrates Reduction
Certain types of medical conditions may require you to considerably reduce your overall carbohydrate intake. In some cases, you may only need to avoid one type of carb.
Celiac Disease: People affected by this autoimmune disorder must completely avoid wheat products. If they consume foods that contain gluten, their body will attack its small intestines.
Diabetes: Diabetics’ bodies don’t adequately regulate their blood sugar levels. As a result, they must carefully monitor their carb intake, limiting or eliminating certain types of foods.
Lactose Intolerance: Lactose-intolerant people often experience unpleasant gastric symptoms when they eat carbohydrate-rich foods that also contain dairy. Therefore, they should avoid these products or find lactose-free alternatives (such as milk and ice cream).
Carb Reductions for Weight Loss
The practice of medically recommended carb reduction has often been deemed appropriate for people who simply want to lose weight. Banishing simple carbohydrates with no nutritional benefits (such as candy and sodas) is a smart idea if you want to shed some excess kilograms.
However, other carbs with high nutritional value can be an integral component of a balanced weight loss plan. Examples include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. By measuring your servings, you’ll ensure that you receive proper nutrition without experiencing the effects of a carb overload.
Managing Carbohydrates Intake with Diabetes
It’s a well-known fact that people with diabetes must closely monitor their carbohydrates intake. However, diabetics have the same carb requirements as non-diabetics. To successfully manage this metabolic condition, it’s important to balance the daily carb intake to avoid experiencing a carb overload during a single meal.
As the American Diabetes Association states, diabetics should limit their carb intake to 45 to 60 grams per meal. A physician or a Registered Dietitian can provide guidelines on designing diabetes-friendly daily meals and snacks.
Unintended Consequences of Carb Guidelines
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (or DGA), along with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, recommend that 45–65% of an individual’s energy needs should be derived from carbohydrates. In the United States, these dietary guidelines serve as the basis for dietitians’ and physicians’ respective advice to their clients and patients.
However, the Journal Nutrients’ September 22, 2021 edition published a study that criticized the U.S. Guidelines’ lack of flexibility regarding individualized carbohydrate dietary plans. The authors felt that this approach does not align with the current focus on personalized dietary regimens.
More alarmingly, say the study’s authors, the DGA’s longstanding high-carbohydrate recommendations have coincided with the increasingly rapid rise in Americans’ obesity and type 2 diabetes. With this development as a backdrop, it’s not surprising that carbohydrate alternatives have become increasingly popular.
Low-carb Diets: Potential Downsides
Maybe your physician has recommended a low-carb diet, or you want to ramp down your carb intake to lose weight. Regardless of your motivation, know that these regimens often replace carbs with high-protein and high-fat foods. If you are eliminating most grains, vegetables, and fruits, you may be lacking in the vital nutrients and fibre your body needs.
In the short term, a low-carb diet will likely produce weight loss simply because you’re limiting daily kilocalories. Because your body isn’t getting enough carbs from food, it will use its glucose and glycogen stores (from your liver and muscles) for energy.
When these stores are depleted, your body turns to your fat deposits. In time, negative metabolic changes can occur. These changes can cause problems for those with metabolic conditions such as diabetes. Finally, there isn’t enough available data to predict low-carb diets’ long-term effects. More research and well-controlled studies are needed.
Nutritious Low-carb Foods
Many low-carb foods pack quite a nutritional punch, and you can easily incorporate them into a balanced diet. View this summary of nutritious low-carbohydrate foods:
- Meat, poultry, fish, and other seafood
- Full-fat dairy products
- Above-ground vegetables (appropriate for all carb restriction levels)
The following non-starchy vegetables boast under 10 grams of carbs per serving:
- Leafy greens
- Green beans
Low-carb nuts and seeds contain beneficial protein:
- Almonds (Find on YoKeto or Amazon)
- Cashews (Find on Woolworths or iHerb)
- Peanuts (Find on Woolworths or Amazon)
- Pistachios (Find on Coles or iHerb)
- Pumpkin seeds (Find on Woolworths or iHerb)
- Sunflower seeds (Find on Woolworths)
- Walnuts (Find on Woolworths or iHerb)
Soy products are low in carbs while packing good protein:
Vegetable-based Pasta Alternatives
Freshly prepared pasta, topped with a flavorful sauce that contains some scrumptious veggies, is a true culinary delight. Fortunately, you can still enjoy the “pasta” experience even without the traditional pasta. Following are six vegetable-based pasta substitutes that blend well with your favorite sauces and garnishes.
Spaghetti Squash Noodles
This starchy vegetable is perfectly named, as you can separate the squash’s cooked flesh into string-like “spaghetti” with a fork. As a bonus, spaghetti squash only has 7 grams of carbs in a 100-gram serving — about 20% of the carbs in a similar amount of pasta. This versatile squash also serves up a veritable feast of vitamins.
Sturdy, sheet-like cabbage noodles are a respectable pasta substitute. Whole cabbage leaves are ideal for baked lasagna sheets. For a pad thai or lo mein dish, cut the cabbage head into thinly sliced noodles. At only 6 grams of carbs for a 100-gram serving, cabbage makes an ideal pasta alternative. This earthy vegetable also packs lots of Vitamins C and K plus folate and additional vitamins and minerals.
Spiralized Vegetable Noodles
Spiralized vegetable noodles make an attractive pasta alternative. These low-carb substitutes also contain lots of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Beets, carrots, cucumbers, turnips, and zucchini are the most popular spiralized vegetables. Keep the peels on for extra beneficial fibre.
Unconventional Spaghetti Alternatives
These three rather unusual spaghetti substitutes pack respectable amounts of protein. Purchase these products from online retailers, or investigate your local healthy foods supermarket’s pasta aisle.
- Black bean spaghetti (Find on Yoketo or iHerb)
- Edamame spaghetti (Find on Yoketo or iHerb)
- Adzuki bean spaghetti (Find on Amazon)
Versatile Vegetable Noodles
Try these plant-based noodles for your next pasta or stir fry dish. Obtain these products through online retailers, or visit your nearby healthy foods grocery store’s pasta section.
- Kelp noodles (for stir fries, salads, and soups)
- Shirataki noodles (from konjac plant, few calories and very filling)
- Tofu noodles (low-carb noodles with lots of protein)
If you decide to banish carb-heavy breads from your diet, you still have several tasty alternatives to put on your plate. Besides lower-carb breads, consider vegetables that can take over bread’s role in some familiar dishes.
Whole Wheat Bread: This versatile bread has 12 grams of carbs per slice. Great for a sandwich, or top with your favorite low-carb spread.
Ezekiel Bread: This bread contains six sprouted whole grains and has 15 grams of carbs per slice. Ezekiel bread contains wheat, so it’s not suitable for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (Find on Pure Life Bakery)
Cloud Bread: This protein-rich bread serves as an English muffin replacement or sandwich base. It’s popular with low-carb and Keto diet enthusiasts.
Low-carb Flour Tortillas: The carb count varies, but it’s drastically lower than regular flour tortillas. These good-sized tortillas make a great base for grilled toppings. Or, make a wrap filled with low-carb veggies. (Find on Amazon)
Plant-based Bread Stand-ins
Feel free to experiment with these bread substitutions. These plant-based foods are very low in carbs, and they also offer intriguing textures and flavors.
Eggplant or Portobello Mushroom Disks: Use these grilled or baked disks for a burger base. Or, slice the eggplant lengthwise to make a deli-style sandwich base.
Cabbage, Collard, or Lettuce Leaves: Use the biggest-possible leaves to make your favorite wraps. Or, fill this low-carb taco shell with your favorite ingredients.
Nori Sheets: These dried seaweed sheets are ideal for wraps. They tend to become soggy when filled with ingredients, so don’t make the wrap until you’re ready to enjoy it.
Pizza Crust Alternatives
A low-carb diet doesn’t mean you should give up your favorite pizza. In recent years, vegetable-based pizza crusts have become increasingly popular. Some health-focused grocery stores may carry these premade vegetable pizza crusts, or make your own from varied recipes.
- Cauliflower pizza crust (resembles regular thin pizza crust)
- Red beet pizza crust
- Sweet potato pizza crust
- Scooped-out baked zucchini pizza base (add your favorite toppings)
- Portobello mushroom cap pizza base (add your favorite toppings)
Lower-carb Wheat Flour Alternatives
A well-stocked grocery store should carry a good variety of wheat flour substitutes. Note that some flours do not lend themselves to certain types of recipes.
Almond Flour: This frequently used flour is made from crushed almonds. At only 3 grams of total carbs per 14-gram serving, it’s an ideal flour substitute. For baking purposes, use almond flour as a 1:1 substitute for wheat flour. However, the finished product might be a bit spongy. Almond flour also works well as a low-carb breading material.
Chia Flour: This flour is composed of ground chia seeds, which absorb lots of moisture. A 12-gram serving of ground chia seeds has 5 grams of total carbs. Although not often used for baking, whole and ground chia seeds can serve as the base for a tasty low-carb pudding that’s also high in fiber.
Coconut Flour: Derived from coconut flesh, this powdery flour has a nice mild taste that works well in many desserts. A 15-gram serving has 9 grams of total carbs. Note that coconut flour readily absorbs liquid. If you’re making a 1:1 substitute for wheat flour, add more liquid ingredients to avoid a dry result.
Flaxseed Meal: Composed of ground flaxseeds, flaxseed meal has 4 grams of total carbs per 14-gram serving. Flaxseed meal also absorbs lots of liquid, so it’s often mixed with other low-carb flours for baking.
Oat Fiber: Made from crushed oat husks, oat fiber is often combined with other low-carb flours in baked goods. A 4-gram serving of oat fiber contains 5 grams of total carbs.
Other Tasty Low-carb Swaps
These low-carb alternatives are surprisingly delicious. Add a carb-friendly topping to enhance each creation’s flavor profile.
- Grilled eggplant slices with toppings (delicious!)
- Grain-free protein pancakes (delicious!)
- Cauliflower or celeriac couscous
- Cauliflower “mashed potatoes”
- Whole-grain pasta topped with carb-friendly sauce or veggies
- Sweet potatoes, yams, or parsnips (swapped for white potatoes)
- Versatile brown rice (great for many dishes, swapped for white rice)
Professional Guidance Yields the Best Results
To get maximum nutritional value from a low-carb diet, consult with a Registered Dietitian with demonstrated expertise. Then, get creative in the kitchen, and whip up lots of low-carb recipes that satisfy your palate.