If you're looking for ways to substitute carbs in your diet without missing out on flavor and feeling full, rest assured that there are plenty of low-carb alternatives that will satisfy your hunger. Big bonus: These swaps boast more nutrients such as vitamins and fiber than their refined-carb counterparts.
The Key to Going Low-Carb the Healthy Way
One reason many people turn to low-carb alternatives is because of the popularity of the ketogenic (keto) diet, which emphasizes substituting carbs with fats, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Other popular low carb diets include the paleo diet (which emphasizes protein over carbohydrates), as well as Atkins and South Beach — these diets emphasize both protein and fat.
However, many low-carb diets may be lacking in necessary nutrients if you're not making informed food choices. The key to choosing low-carb substitutes, according to Harvard Health Publishing, is going for whole, high-fiber foods (such as nutrient-rich whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruit and vegetables) over heavily processed, high-carbohydrate foods (think cookies, crackers, cake, candy and soda).
"Trading veggies for various forms of starchy carbs is a fun way to boost the nutrition of your meal and increase your veggie intake," says Samantha Cassetty, RD, nutrition and wellness expert based in New York City. "When you consider the fact that only one in 10 people meet daily veggie targets, it's an easy way to help you reach your goals," she says.
Trying to track your daily carb intake?
Low-Carb Pasta Picks
A two-ounce serving of dry spaghetti contains about 43 grams of carbohydrates, according to the USDA. Fortunately, if you have a spiralizer, creating a lower-carb pasta alternative is easy. "Exchange spiralized zucchini, squash or beets for white, processed pasta," says Jennifer Glockner, RDN, creator of Smartee Plate, an interactive, award-winning nutrition e-book series for kids.
Zucchini, in particular, is a versatile substitute for pasta — it can be made into ribbons, sticks or strips, says Elizabeth Huggins, RDN, at Hilton Head Health. "It can be used as a partial or total stand-in for spaghetti, as a replacement for lasagna noodles or even cut into strips and used as a swap for pretzels or chips," she says. Plus, one large zucchini contains half-gram of carbs, according to the USDA.
Another option you can purchase in your supermarket is shirataki noodles, suggests Lara Clevenger, RDN, who specializes in low-carb and keto diets and co-owns The Keto Queens. These gluten-free noodles are made from yam and are a favorite of keto-diet devotees. A two-ounce serving contains just 2 grams of carbohydrates.
Best Low-Carb Rice Substitutes
For rice lovers, using riced cauliflower is a revelation. "Riced cauliflower is the easiest and most natural swap for rice because it matches the color and texture of regular white rice," says Cassetty.
According to the USDA, a half-cup of cooked brown rice contains 50 grams of carbs and about 1.5 grams of fiber. Meanwhile, one half-cup of cauliflower contains 2.66 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber. "You'll also get meaningful levels of vitamin C, vitamin K and some B vitamins by opting for cauli," Cassetty says.
It's relatively easy to rice cauliflower if you have a food processor. After washing and cutting it into florets, make sure the cauliflower is dry before grating in your food processor, Glockner says. Substitute a half-cup of cooked cauliflower rice for one half-cup of cooked rice, she says. "A typical large cauliflower yields about 4 cups of 'rice' or eight servings."
But if the prep work sounds like a time-consuming deterrent, buy cauliflower pre-riced. "I buy it frozen and pre-riced so it's always on hand," says Cassetty.
Cauliflower isn't the only vegetable you can rice. You can also try it with broccoli and edamame, says Glockner. Cassetty recommends Seapoint Farms Frozen Riced Edamame, which has 8 grams of carbs and also supplies potassium and iron. "Making a swap like this doesn't just reduce the carbs, but it boosts your meal's nutrition considerably," says Cassetty.
Low-Carb Swaps for Mashed Potatoes and Fries
Mashed Root Veggies or Cauliflower
A cup of mashed white potatoes has 36.6 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. But other, lower-carb vegetables are also an alternative for mashing. "Instead of mashed potatoes, try mashed parsnip or celery root or even mashed cauliflower," says Glockner. One cup of mashed cauliflower contains 20 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber.
"Cauliflower is a great source of fiber and B vitamins, antioxidants and phytonutrients and much lower in carbohydrates and calories than rice or pasta or potatoes," says Huggins.
The potato is not the only vegetable you can cut up into a stick. "Most root veggies work well in place of potatoes," says Cassetty. Try making fries out of jicama, parsnip, zucchini or other crunchy veggies.
Cassetty (and her teenaged son) like kohlrabi fries as an option. "They're a perfect swap because they look just like ordinary french fries and taste really similar." Yet a cup of cooked kohlrabi has under 50 calories, just 11 grams of carbs and about 2 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. The veggie is also a solid source of vitamin C and potassium, she says.
Low-Carb Bread, Wrap and Cracker Ideas
Going low-carb does not mean abandoning sandwiches or wraps. One option is SoLo Deliciously Seeded Low Carb Bread, which packs in just 6 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber per slice while most brands pack in at least 15 grams of carbs for the same serving. Another option is to use almond and coconut flour to make your own, Clevenger says.
You can also try this recipe for Garlic, Dill and Cheddar Keto Bread that packs in only 4 grams of carbs with 2 grams of fiber.
Expand how you define a sandwich with creative alternatives for bread. "A fun swap for a doughy, carb-rich sandwich is to fold your sandwich ingredients into a sliced and hollowed red pepper," Cassetty says. One small red pepper has 4.46 grams of carbohydrates, according to the USDA. A pepper sandwich is colorful and crunchy — and also contains more than your daily value of vitamin C, Cassetty tells us.
Cabbage or Lettuce Leaves
Wrap up sandwiches or burgers in lettuce leaves — or, opt for cabbage leaves, Cassetty says. "Any of these swaps are going to save carbs and boost your veggie intake, but a red cabbage leaf also contains protective plant compounds known as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants," she says. A single leaf of red cabbage has 1.7 grams of carbs, according to the USDA.
A great cracker alternative that also doubles as cheese is Moon Cheese, a snack made solely of dehydrated cheese. "It brings in over 10 grams of protein, no sugar and less than 2 grams of carbs in a savory, convenient snack," Clevenger says. Plus, it gives you that crunch satisfaction that people often miss on a keto diet.
A List of Healthy Low-Carb Foods to Keep on Hand
If you're not a nutritionist, you're likely not walking around with a sense of which foods are high in carbs, and which foods aren't. Of course, with some foods, it's obvious: Desserts or anything with lots of white flour tends to be high in carbs and so are starchy foods (like potatoes).
Here are some nutrient-dense, low-carb eats to keep in mind as you're planning out meals and snacks.
- Shrimp, lobster and other shellfish
Read more: List of Low-Carb, Low-Sugar Foods
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Smart Way to Look at Carbohydrates"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source: "Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss"
- USDA: "Pasta, Dry, Enriched"
- USDA: "Squash, Zucchini, Baby, Raw"
- USDA: "Pasta, Whole Grain"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Shirataki Spaghetti"
- USDA: "Cauliflower, Raw"
- USDA: "White Potatoes, Mashed"
- USDA: "Mashed Cauliflower"
- USDA: "Peppers, Sweet, Red, Raw"
- USDA: "Cabbage, Red, Raw"
- USDA: "Apple, Raw"
- USDA: "Kohlrabi"