Grain-Free, Low-Carb Substitutes for Pasta

Use these healthy alternatives to cut calories from your favorite noodle dishes

Do you feel heavy in your stomach after eating pasta? Do you have wheat sensitivity? Do you gain weight if you eat too much pasta?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, know that there are more options than ever for “pasta” that are lower in carbohydrates and calories than traditional wheat-based or gluten-free pasta. The key to automatically reducing carbs and calories is to ditch those made from high-carb grains and legumes and replace them with grain- and legume-free alternatives made from non-starchy vegetables.

Reasons to Eat Pasta Substitutes

Whether in the form of spaghetti, fettuccini, penne or noodles, white pasta, which is made from refined wheat flour, is a high carbohydrate and calorie food. In other words, it is energy dense. Whole-grain pasta, which is made mostly from whole-grain flour and contains more fiber, is also a high-carb and high-calorie food. In contrast, non-starchy vegetables are significantly lower in carbs and calories. Compare the amount of carbohydrates and calories in each of these foods:

  • 1 cup of white pasta: 43 grams of carbs and 221 calories.
  • 1 cup of whole-wheat pasta: 48 grams of carbs and 238 calories.
  • 1 cup zucchini noodles: 3.7 grams of carbs and 20 calories.

(Zucchini also provides significantly more of certain micronutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium.)

There is almost a complete lack of research on whether whole grains are better for weight loss than no grains and lots of vegetables. Vegetables protect health and help prevent disease in many ways, but vegetable consumption in the United States is low. In 2019, only 1 in 10 American adults met the vegetable consumption recommendation of 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report concludes that replacing high-calorie foods with low-calorie foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can be an important part of a weight management strategy. Yet, not all fruits and vegetables are created equal. In a 2015 study, Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that while eating more fruits and vegetables overall could promote weight loss, study participants who ate more starchy vegetables, such as potatoes , corn and peas, tended to gain weight. Those who ate more fruits and non-starchy vegetables — which are higher in fiber and lower in carbs — lost weight.

As I explained in my book, “Going Against the Tide,” a basic nutritional rule for controlling or losing weight is to eat foods with more vitamins and minerals and fewer carbohydrates and calories. If you replace grain products with non-starchy vegetables, you automatically dramatically reduce carbohydrates and calories in your diet, and many people have found this to be an effective way to lose weight. A 2019 review article and study analysis shows that the adoption of the Paleolithic diet without cereals and rich in vegetables is positively associated with weight loss. The effect is significant on weight, body mass index and waist circumference.

People with autoimmune celiac disease or who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity should follow a gluten-free diet so they don’t experience uncomfortable symptoms. People with a wheat allergy should follow a wheat-free diet. Eating pasta alternatives made from non-starchy vegetables is a great way to not only avoid foods that cause unpleasant symptoms, but also help control or lose weight for people with these conditions.

Grain-free pasta substitutes

The following list does not include grain-free or gluten-free pasta substitutes made with starches, such as cassava flour or rice flour, which are high in carbohydrates and calories. The following low carb alternatives are made from non-starchy vegetables, which provide high amounts of essential vitamins and minerals relative to the carbohydrates and calories they provide. Look for the products below at health food stores, many grocery stores, and some national chains, such as Walmart.

Spiralized Vegetable Noodles

Spiralized vegetable varieties are available in the produce section of many grocery and health food stores and sometimes in the frozen food aisle. Zucchini noodles are the most common and the easiest to find. Kohlrabi noodles are now sold under a few brands. The pre-cut vegetarian noodles are easy to prepare: just sauté them in oil for a few minutes and season them.

For a nutritional comparison, Cece’s Veggie Co., a nationally distributed brand, offers:

  • Organic Zucchini Noodles with three grams of carbs and one gram of fiber for two grams of net carbs and only 10 calories per serving;
  • Organic Noodle Butternut with nine grams of carbs and two grams of fiber for seven grams of net carbs and 35 calories;
  • Organic noodle beets with seven grams of carbs and two grams of fiber for five grams of net carbs and 35 calories – still considerably less than the carbs and calories of pasta. Butternut Spirals also provide 160% of the Daily Value of Vitamin A and 25% of the Daily Value of Vitamin C, and Beet Spirals are a good source of iron.
  • Zucchini Marinara and Zucchini Pesto Veggie Meals: Provide everything needed to quickly prepare tasty, vitamin-rich meals that are significantly lower in carbohydrates and calories than typical take-out meals.

Trader Joe’s Vegetable Kohlrabi Pasta has 2.5 grams of carbs and 1.5 grams of fiber per one gram of net carbs and 12.5 calories per one-cup serving.

spaghetti squash

As the name suggests, spaghetti squash is a great substitute for spaghetti. However, preparing the vegetable from scratch takes time.

The Solely company offers a solution: organic spaghetti squash cooked and dried in the oven, which you can easily prepare in a fraction of the time. Simply boil this pasta substitute according to package directions, rinse, and combine with a flavorful heated sauce, like spaghetti sauce with meatballs.

For a cold pasta salad, no cooking is necessary. Just soak the pasta in a large bowl of water.

The package provides noodles from a whole spaghetti squash. A cooked quarter or half-cup serving of squash contains six grams of carbs and two grams of fiber for a total of four grams of net carbs and just 30 calories.

Look for this product in the pasta section of the interior aisles of supermarkets. Solely Spaghetti Squash is shelf stable, so you can keep it in your pantry or take it with you when you travel.

Hearts of Palm Pasta

Hearts of Palm Pasta are sold as Palmini by OA Foods and other brands, such as Trader Joe’s. It is made from a natural plant called heart of palm, which is cut into pieces shaped like linguini or other common pasta shapes.

The hearts of palm noodles, with a neutral taste, can be taken out of the packaging, rinsed with water and reheated as is with the sauce of your choice. If you prefer softer noodles, they can be boiled until desired texture is achieved.

Noodles provide minerals, such as potassium and calcium. Depending on the brand used, they contain 3 to 4 grams of carbs and 1 to 2 grams of fiber, which equates to about two grams of net carbs and 15 to 20 calories per serving. Look for these shelf-stable products in the pasta section of grocery stores.

Kelp noodles

Produced by the Sea Tangle Noodle Company, kelp noodles are a combination of sea vegetable kelp and sodium alginate, a sodium salt extracted from a brown seaweed. Despite what you might think of their name, kelp noodles, which you can find in the refrigerated case of some chain stores, taste non-fishy and completely neutral, and they pick up the flavors of the foods they are combined with. . They’re high in iodine, which is crucial for thyroid health, and they’re almost entirely carb and calorie free.

They’re also easy to use—just open the bag, drain, and add at the last minute to soups or stir-fries. If you prefer the noodles to have a chewier texture, wash them in cold water, then soak them in a large bowl of water and the juice of half a lemon for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Finish by mixing in a savory sauce, like pesto, and let them sit for an hour or two combined with the sauce.

Shirataki noodles

Made from the root of the konjac plant which grows in parts of Asia, shirataki noodles are a convenient food item for many dieters as they are very low in calories and carbohydrates, with some fiber.

They contain glucomannan, a soluble fiber, which means the fiber turns into a gel-like substance once you eat it, leaving you feeling full longer. Fiber can slow the rate at which the body absorbs carbohydrates, which can help people avoid blood sugar spikes, and fiber can also act as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon.

Shirataki noodles are actually about 3% fiber and 97% water, so it’s easy to see why they’re low in calories. However, unlike the other pasta alternatives already mentioned, shirataki noodles do not contain any vitamins or minerals unless the manufacturer adds them. It is therefore important to accompany them with a nutritious sauce.

Shirataki noodles come in different shapes, such as angel hair and fettuccini. They are available dry or in water and can be found in the pasta section or in the refrigerated case. Common brands found in stores include Miracle Noodles Spaghetti, Skinny Pasta, and House Foods Traditional Shirataki Noodles.

To use, follow the instructions on the package. For the wet variety, this usually involves draining them and rinsing them well with fresh water. Then prepare the noodles by boiling them in water for a few minutes or, for some brands, sautéing them briefly.

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