Looking to cut down on carbs and trim calories? Try these expert-approved ways to substitute veggies, fruits, and pulses for refined carbohydrates at every meal.
Carbs aren't the enemy. In fact, good-for-you whole grains such as oats, farro, and barley are great sources of important nutrients like protein, fiber, iron, and B vitamins. But substituting veggies, fruits, or pulses for refined carbohydrates (think bread, pasta, and all-purpose flour) can be beneficial, especially if you're looking to reduce the amount of refined carbs in your diet, trim calories, and amp up vitamin intake. We asked seven nutritionists to share the low-carb swaps they use to cut down on carbohydrates without sacrificing taste.
Fava bean flour
Fava beans aren’t just for your salad. The legume can also be found in flour form—and it’s more nutritious than all-purpose flour.
"Per quarter cup, fava bean flour packs 8 grams of fiber (compared with less than 1 gram in all-purpose flour) and 4 grams fewer carbs, as well as protein, minerals, and antioxidants," says Health’s contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD. "And it works great in nearly any recipe."
You've probably made butter lettuce wraps with ground chicken or pork before. But don't stop there: "Collard greens, kale, chard, and lettuce leaves are a nutritious way to cut calories on sandwiches and a good replacement for taco ‘shells’ too," says Marisa Moore, RDN, adding that swapping greens for grains can save you up to 300 calories. For a quick meal that's packed with flavor, she suggests wrapping seasoned white beans in a kale leaf with marinara sauce drizzled on top.
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Turn up the nutritional content (but not the calorie count) with turnips. Like potatoes, turnips are a starch vegetable, but they contain two-thirds of the calories, making them a great alternative to mashed potatoes.
"They're a low-calorie vegetable that's a great source of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins K, C and A," says Leah Kaufman, RD. "Plus, one cup of turnips is just 35 calories and 8 grams of fiber." To make mashed turnips, steam and mash the veggie, then add low-fat milk and a dollop of soft cheese for an extra creamy side dish.
Zucchini noodles (or "zoodles") are one of the most popular low-carb swaps, and for good reason—the summer veggie has a mild flavor that works well in a variety of different dishes. But zucchini isn't the only veggie you can put in your spiralizer: Carrots also make a delicious pasta substitute.
"Something a little bit different is Carrot Pad See Ew, a low-carb take on one of my favorite Thai dishes," says registered dietitian Brittany Kohn, who frequently makes this Paleo Pad See Ew recipe. "I love it because it really feels like you're eating noodles, but not only are you avoiding carbs, you're also adding servings of vegetables."
Like turnips, cauliflower also makes a healthy—but still decadent-tasting—substitute for mashed potatoes.
"I love to make ‘whipped cauliflower’ instead of traditional mashed potatoes," says Megan Roosevelt, RDN, founder of HealthyGroceryGirl.com. "I’m not discriminating against potatoes. However, cauliflower contains more fiber than white potatoes, so it’s a great option if you’re watching your blood sugar levels or sugar intake."
To make, steam cauliflower florets and then blend in a food processor until they have the consistency of mashed potatoes. To give the dish a flavor boost, you can also add in celery root, which tastes like a delicious mix of celery and parsley.
You've probably heard of cauliflower rice, but did you know that broccoli also works as a rice substitute? Just throw the broccoli florets into your food processor (or grate if you don’t have one), then microwave, steam, or sauté the "rice" with olive oil for a light, low-carb rice alternative.
"Broccoli is filled with fiber, vitamin K and vitamin B6, which is great for decreasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease,” explains Kaufman.
By replacing white pasta with spaghetti squash "noodles," you can cut calories and load up on folate, potassium, and fiber.
"Cup for cup, you’ll save almost 200 calories and over 30 grams of carbohydrates," says Sass. "Plus, spaghetti squash is a great source of immune-supporting vitamin A."
"Apple slices are a fun swap for bread on a peanut butter ‘sandwich,’” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH. Simply cut an apple into two thin, circular slices and spread each one with nut butter. Top the slices with healthy additions like dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and cinnamon, then sandwich them together for a high-fiber snack.
Sweet potato toast
Next time you're craving a piece of toast, Middleberg Nutrition founder Stephanie Middleberg, RD, recommends opting for thinly-sliced sweet potato "toast" instead of bread.
"Sweet potatoes pack more fiber than whole wheat bread and are less processed," she explains. Also good: the fall veggie is a great source of potassium, vitamins A and C, and magnesium. Middleberg suggests cooking your "toast" with olive oil, pepper, and a little garlic, then topping with mashed avocado.