The Best Vegetable Replacements for Carbohydrates

Making sensible food swaps for weight management

There’s a meme going around the internet 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.

Swapping in these so-called faux-carb veggies for higher-carb food options 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.”

How faux-carb swaps work

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

1. Portion control. “The portion sizes are self-limiting. You typically you won’t overeat these.” 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.

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

3. 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.

4. Fewer calories. “These are lower calorie foods to replace higher calorie starchy foods.” Simply eating lighter foods that are lower in calories and higher in nutrients such as vegetables can help you lower your overall calorie intake, which can lead to weight loss.

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5. 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.

Read on for eight vegetables you should swap for high-carb foods like potatoes, rice and bread products in your meals. These faux-carbs are hugely popular and easy to make. They just take a little effort to uncover and a bit of ingenuity in the kitchen.

1. Cauliflower.

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.

2. 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 it its name — makes it an obvious choice for replacing high calorie and carb-based wheat noodles of various shapes and sizes.

3. Shirataki noodles.

Dthia Kalkwarf, a diabetes nurse with National Jewish Health in Denver says, “I also 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.”

4. 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. 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. Bell peppers, celery, kale, carrots and any other garden vegetable.

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.

6. Carrots and other root vegetables.

Like sweet potatoes and squash, carrots and other root vegetable can stand in for starchy white potatoes in a wide variety of dishes. They also lend themselves to being chipped or just munched on plain as a replacement for pretzels or 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 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 also recommend 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.

7. 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.

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.

8. Beets and eggplants.

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.

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 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,” and you may surprise yourself by just how enjoyable some of these swaps become.

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 the 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.”

8 vegetables that can replace carbs

1. For rice, mashed potato and pizza dough: cauliflower.

2. For pasta: squashes and zucchini.

3. For noodles: shirataki noodles.

4. For mashed potatoes and pasta: sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

5. For potato chips: Bell peppers, celery, kale and carrots.

6. For flour or crunchy snacks like pretzels and crackers: carrots and other root vegetables.

7. For sandwich bread: cabbage, lettuce and mushrooms.

8. For lasagna: beets and eggplant.

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