By Shira Isenberg
First, a little perspective: while many people can lose weight by reducing their intake of carbs—think the traditional Atkins—you can’t cut carbs out completely. Carbohydrates are not inherently bad; like protein and fat, they have a purpose in the diet—they provide much-needed energy as well as specific nutrients. Whole grains, for example, provide a range of B vitamins. Even the quintessential weight-loss foods, fruits and vegetables, are full of carbs. One small apple has about 20 grams of carbs, while a cup of cooked broccoli contains about 11 grams of carbohydrates. Of course, “starchy” fruits and vegetables like bananas or potatoes run on the higher end.
Where many people go wrong is overeating their carbs. Because carbs tend to be comfort foods like pasta, bread and rice—as well as cookies and cakes, which are often made from refined flours and have added sugar and fat—portion sizes can grow quickly. As you eat more, the calories add up—leading to weight gain. Carbohydrates also don’t have that same satiety, the staying power of fat and protein that helps you feel full. Eating plain pasta, for instance, tends to not be as filling as pasta with cheese, so you keep eating more and more of the plain pasta to feel satisfied.
Especially now, in the yom tov season—with sweet challah and apple kugels and honeyed desserts—if you’re not paying attention, carb counts can climb. So it’s a smart idea to cut down, and that should help you get on the losing track. Here are some ideas of foods you can try subbing for more traditional starches.
Keep in mind that most foods are a combination of the different macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. So it’s difficult to pinpoint foods that don’t have any carbohydrates at all.
Cauliflower: I don’t know who was the first to “rice” a cauliflower, but permutations of this vegetable are showing up in all kinds of “fake” carbs, from rice and rolls to pizza and pasta. Simply place your checked cauliflower in the food processor and puree to desired consistency. You can sauté, season, and serve, or look up any of the hundreds of recipes flooding the Internet for your cauliflower concoction.
⇒1 small head of raw cauliflower (4-inch diameter): 13 grams of carbohydrate
Mushrooms: Whether sliced or stuffed, mushrooms are a low-carb and versatile fungus to base your side dish on. I’ve even seen portabella mushroom caps stand in for a bun or—topped with sauce and cheese—even a pizza crust.
⇒1 cup of raw mushrooms or 1 portabella mushroom: 3 grams of carbohydrate
Collard Greens: Think outside the salad by using these leaves in place of bread or wraps. Collard greens are hardier than many other greens, so your wrap will stay together; you may however prefer to blanch the leaves so they’re a little softer. After washing and checking, trim the tough center rib of the leaves first, before you wrap. You can also try other salad leaves like romaine or kale for wrapping, although you’ll find them more delicate.
⇒1 cup of chopped collard greens: 2 grams of carbohydrate
Zucchini: If you don’t yet have a spiralizer, get this inexpensive and fun kitchen tool to create “zoodles” or noodle-like strings of zucchini (or other vegetables too). Or slice zucchini into chunks and bake, like fries, or into very thin slices along the length of the zucchini, a la lasagna noodles. Zucchini is also delicious roasted or sautéed or even raw.
⇒1 cup of sliced, cooked zucchini: 5 grams of carbohydrate
Turnips: This often-forgotten root vegetable can stand in for your traditional carbs. Peeled and cubed, it even looks like potatoes! Look for smaller turnips at the store, since those often are a bit sweeter, and roast, bake, steam or sauté—your choice.
⇒1 cup of cooked turnip cubes: 8 grams of carbohydrate
Radishes: When you’re missing the crunch of a chip or a pretzel—or crispy noodles or croutons in salad—crisp radishes sliced into rounds or julienned might do the trick; however, if you can’t handle their bite, cooking softens their bitterness. Try roasting, grilling, baking or steaming.
⇒1 cup radish slices: 4 grams of carbohydrate
Nuts: Skip the candy tray and put out an assortment of nuts for dessert or to nosh on between yom tov meals. One of the best things about nuts—besides tasting delicious—is their healthy fat and protein content. This can make it easier to keep your portions in check, which you need to do because the calories add up quickly. It’s easy to keep taking handfuls. For snacks on the go, single-serving bags are a no-brainer.
⇒1 ounce whole almonds: 6 grams of carbohydrate
Eggs: Though not exactly a carb substitute, eggs are a protein-rich food that is practically carb-free. And if you skip the yolk, you’re cutting out most of the fat too, leaving a food you can scramble, mash or slice for less than 20 calories.
⇒1 egg: less than 1 gram of carbohydrate (about 0.4)
Olives: Savory and salty, olives are rich in flavor but not in carbs. Because of their healthy fat content, you don’t want to eat too many at a time, but a little bit goes a long way to adding flavor to your sandwich, salad, casserole, chicken or just a snack. You can even find plastic cups of sliced olives at the supermarket, like fruit cups.
⇒10 large olives (canned): 3 grams of carbohydrate
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer with a private nutrition practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.