If you love carbs, you’re certainly not alone—after all, who doesn’t crave a slice or three of pizza after a long day? However, many trendy diet programs and nutritionists attest to the benefits of limiting your carb intake, especially when it comes to the refined stuff, like pastas and white breads.
Your body breaks carbs down into sugar, which sparks your production of the hormone insulin when it hits your blood stream, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Refined carbs hit your system especially fast, explaining the blood sugar and hormone rollercoaster (and eventual crash) that follows.
“Minimizing your refined carbs can help you reign in your blood sugar [keeping you from overeating and fighting diabetes risk], and keep your cholesterol in check [promoting heart health],” explains Janie Zeitlin, R.D. Even the biggest of carb-lovers can’t deny that appeal.
Regardless of why you’re cutting back—maybe you’re test-driving a program like Whole30 or Paleo, or you’ve found that high-carb diets don’t work for you—you’re probably wondering how you could ever replace burger buns or eat sushi without the rice. We asked dietitians to share some of their best low-carb food swaps, so you can keep on enjoying your favorite meals and flavors.
The Swap: Cauliflower Fried “Rice” Instead Of Fried Rice
“A typical Chinese takeout fried rice meal often contains excess carbohydrates from white rice and starchy veggies, like peas,” says Lisa Mikus, R.D., L.D. “For a low-carb version, swap the white rice for finely chopped cauliflower and the peas for shelled edamame.”
Make It: Grab a bag of riced cauliflower from the frozen section of your local health food store or coarsely chop a small head of cauliflower and pulse in the food processor until it reaches a rice-like consistency. Then, sauté cauliflower rice with olive oil and reduced-sodium soy sauce or coconut aminos over medium heat. Add in edamame, bell peppers, and shredded carrots, as desired. Cook until tender-crisp. (You can also add an egg to the mixture for extra protein.)
The Swap: Baked Zucchini Boats Instead Of Breaded Mozzarella Sticks
“Mozzarella sticks are often heavily breaded and fried in fattening oils, making them both carb and calorie-dense,” says Mikus. “Make zucchini boats instead for the same Italian food fix and bold flavor, without the guilt.”
Make It: Cut a small zucchini in half length-wise, scoop out the seeds, and season with salt and pepper. Spoon tomato sauce into the scooped out section of the zucchini and top with a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until zucchini is tender and cheese is bubbling.
The Swap: Baked Acorn Squash Rings Instead Of Onion Rings
“Like mozzarella sticks, onion rings are typically doused in a carb-rich batter and deep-fried in oil,” says Mikus. “Replace them with these trendy acorn squash rings for a similarly crunchy snack that won’t weigh you down.”
Make It: Slice acorn squash horizontally into ½-inch slices and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Sprinkle lightly with Japanese breadcrumbs and shredded Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and squash is easily pierced with a fork. (Tip: You can easily change up the flavor of this recipe by using different seasonings, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, and crushed almonds for texture.)
The Swap: Veggie Chips Instead Of Potato Chips
“Dehydrated veggie chips have less saturated fat and carbohydrates than regular potato chips and, with the right spices and seasonings, taste even better than potato chips while still satisfying salty cravings,” says Mikus.
Make It: Use a vegetable mandolin to thinly slice veggies (Mikus recommends starting with zucchini or beets). Toss in olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes up to an hour, or until veggie chips are crisp. If you have a dehydrator, place slices evenly in the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 degrees for eight to 24 hours (depending on the model), or until veggie chips are crisp.
The Swap: ‘Zoodles’ Instead Of Pasta
“I love to make this low carb swap, not only because ‘zoodles’ take a fraction of the time to cook, but because you can load them with any sauce and they take on all of the flavor,” says Nora Minno, R.D., C.D.N. “For only 33 calories and six grams of carbohydrates, a medium zucchini contains 2.5 grams of protein and two grams of fiber.”
Make It: Use a spiralizer or Julienne peeler on medium-sized zucchinis to create zoodles. Boil zoodles until tender and swap in for pasta noodles in all of your favorite dishes.
The Swap: Portobello Mushrooms Instead Of Burger Buns
“Portobello mushrooms are the perfect size for sandwiching together your favorite burger,” says Minno. “Plus they can save you around 20 grams of carbs per serving!”
Make It: Heat up two portobello mushroom caps in the oven or on the grill until tender, and fix your burger as desired.
The Swap: Cauliflower Sushi Instead Of Rice Sushi
“Two rolls of sushi can contain more than 240 calories and 50 grams of carbs from the white rice alone,” says Zeitlin. “Not to mention, sushi rice often contains added sugar.” Cauliflower sushi is lighter, yet oh-so-delicious, and saves you approximately 150 calories and 45 grams of carbs per cup of rice used.
Make It: Mix cauliflower rice (either store bought or homemade) with one to two ounces of low-fat, spreadable cheese to mimic the consistency of sushi rice without the added sugar, says Zeitlin. Spread the mixture onto a sheet of Nori, add smoked salmon and thinly sliced cucumber as desired, and roll.
The Swap: 90% Cacao Chocolate Instead Of Milk Chocolate
“Though still caloric, choosing the super-dark 90% cacao over milk chocolate cuts your carb intake in half and provides more antioxidants, iron, and magnesium,” says Zeitlin. “It will also help you avoid lots of added sugar, which typically encourages your cravings.”
Make It: You can usually find chocolate bars made of 90% cacao at the grocery store. If you’re tempted to eat the whole bar in one sitting, portion it out into the appropriate serving sizes (about two squares) and keep them in the freezer.
The Swap: Shirataki Noodles Or Rice Instead Of Hot Cereal Or Pasta
“Konjac is the plant typically used to make shirataki noodles, which come in an array of shapes and sizes,” says Zeitlin. “The newest form of Konjac is rice, which has a tapioca-like consistency and works as the perfect high-fiber, gluten free, calorie-free, hot cereal alternative.” This swap can save you 150 calories and 30 grams of carbs for every cup of porridge or ½ cup of pasta you replace with it.
Make It: Pick up a bag of shirataki noodles or rice at your local health food store. (You’ll often find it in the refrigerated section). Drain, rinse well, and boil for two minutes. Use noodles as a replacement for pasta. Top rice with cinnamon, chopped walnuts, slivered almonds, skim milk, or unsweetened almonds. You can also drizzle the rice with olive oil for a savory twist on porridge.
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