Nutrition

Grain-Free, Low-Carb Substitutes for Pasta

Use these healthy alternatives to cut the calories in your favorite noodle dishes
BY Melissa Diane Smith TIMEAugust 12, 2022 PRINT

Do you feel heavy in the gut after eating pasta? Do you have a 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’s lower in carbohydrates and calories than traditional wheat-based or gluten-free pasta. The key to automatically reducing the carbohydrates and calories is to ditch those made from high-carb grains and legumes and substitute grain-free, legume-free alternatives made from non-starchy vegetables.

Reasons to Eat Pasta Substitutes

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

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

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

There’s almost a complete lack of research on whether whole grains are better for weight loss than no grains and a lot of vegetables. Vegetables protect health and help prevent diseases in many ways, but vegetable intake in the United States is low. In 2019, only 1 in 10 U.S. adults met vegetable intake recommendations of 2–3 cups of vegetables daily.

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 all fruits and vegetables aren’t created equal. In a 2015 study, Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that while eating more fruit and vegetables overall can 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 carbohydrates—lost weight.

As I explained in my book, “Going Against the Grain,” a basic nutrition 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 nonstarchy vegetables, you substantially and automatically reduce the 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 analysis of studies shows that adopting the grain-free, vegetable-rich Paleolithic diet is positively associated with weight loss. The effect is significant on weight, body mass index, and waist circumference.

People who have the autoimmune disease celiac disease or who have nonceliac gluten sensitivity must eat a gluten-free diet in order to not experience uncomfortable symptoms. Those with a wheat allergy must eat a wheat-free diet. Eating pasta substitutes that are made of nonstarchy vegetables is an excellent way to not only avoid the foods that cause unpleasant symptoms but also to help control or lose weight for people with these conditions.

Grain-Free Pasta Substitutes

The following list doesn’t include grain-free or gluten-free pasta substitutes made with starches, such as cassava flour or rice flour, that are high in carbohydrates and calories. The lower-carb substitutes that follow are made from nonstarchy vegetables, which provide high amounts of essential vitamins and minerals relative to the carbs and calories they supply. Look for the products below in natural food stores, many grocery stores, and some national chains, such as Walmart.

Spiralized Vegetable Noodles

Spiralized varieties of vegetables are available in the produce section of many grocery stores and natural food stores and sometimes in the frozen foods departments. Zucchini noodles are the most common and easy to find. Kohlrabi noodles are now sold under a few brand names. Pre-cut veggie noodles are easy to prepare: You simply sauté them in oil for a few minutes and season.

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

  • Organic Noodled Zucchini with three grams of carbs and one gram of fiber for two grams of net carbs and only 10 calories per serving;
  • Organic Noodled Butternut with nine grams of carbs and two grams of fiber for seven grams of net carbs and 35 calories;
  • Organic Noodled Beets with seven grams of carbs and two grams of fiber for five grams of net carbs and 35 calories – still dramatically lower than the carbs and calories in pasta. The butternut spirals also provide 160 percent of the daily value of vitamin A and 25 percent of the daily value of vitamin C, and the beet spirals are a good source of iron.
  • Zucchini Marinara and Zucchini Pesto Veggie Meals: they provide everything needed to quickly prepare vitamin-packed, tasty meals that have substantially lower carbs and calories than found in typical on-the-go meals.

Kohlrabi vegetable pasta from Trader Joe’s has 2.5 grams of carbs and 1.5 grams of fiber for 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 is time-consuming.

The company Solely offers a solution: baked and oven-dried organic spaghetti squash, which you can prepare with little fuss in a fraction of the time. Simply boil this pasta substitute according to package instructions, rinse, and combine with a flavorful heated sauce, such as a spaghetti sauce with meatballs.

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

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

Look for this product in the pasta section in the inner 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 is sold as Palmini by O.A. Foods and other brands, such as Trader Joe’s. It’s made out of a natural plant known as heart of palm, which is cut into linguini-shaped pieces or other common pasta shapes.

Hearts of palm noodles, which have a neutral taste, can be taken out of the package, rinsed with water, and heated as is with the sauce you desire. If you prefer a softer noodle, they can be boiled until your desired texture is achieved.

The noodles supply minerals, such as potassium and calcium. Depending on the brand used, they contain 3–4 grams of carbs and 1–2 grams of fiber, which equal roughly two grams of net carbs and 15–20 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 the sea vegetable kelp and sodium alginate, a sodium salt that’s extracted from a brown seaweed. Despite what you might think from their name, kelp noodles, which you can find in the refrigerated case in some store chains, have a non-fishy, completely neutral taste, and they pick up the flavors of the foods they’re combined with. They’re rich in iodine, which is crucial for thyroid health, and they’re almost completely carbohydrate- and calorie-free.

They’re also easy to use: Just open the bag, drain, and add them at the last minute to soups or stir-fries. If you prefer the noodles to have a softer 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 tossing in a flavorful sauce, such as pesto, and let them sit for an hour or two combined with the sauce.

Shirataki Noodles

Made from the root of the konjac plant that’s grown in parts of Asia, shirataki noodles are a handy food product for many dieters because they’re very low calorie and low carbohydrate, with some fiber.

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

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

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

To use, follow the package directions. 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, briefly sautéing them.

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”
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