By now, we’re (hopefully) all well aware that carbs are not, in fact, the enemy. Starches are quite literally life-giving. After all, our cells’ favorite source of fuel is glucose, the breakdown product of carbohydrate digestion. So… why do so many people still scoop out their bagels and choose sweet potatoes over white spuds in the name of “health?” The likely answer is ‘it’s fewer calories’ or ‘because low-carb substitutes are better for you.’
But is there any legitimacy to that? Here’s a registered dietitian’s take on the low-carb substitutes that don’t actually matter as much as you think they do—and may even be counterproductive, depending on your health goals.
4 low-carb substitutes that really aren’t much “better for you”
Swapping brown rice for white rice 100 percent of the time
The thinking goes that brown rice is healthier than white rice and, frankly, I wouldn’t totally disagree. Brown rice is a whole grain while white rice is a refined grain.
Quick refresher: Whole grains (like brown rice) have two key parts of the grain still intact. First, is the germ, which houses nutrients like zinc and magnesium. And second, the bran, where most of the grain’s fiber is found. Refined grains like white rice have been stripped of both the germ and bran, leaving only the starchy portion of the carb behind.
Of course, we all want more fiber, more vitamins, and more minerals on our plates—and brown rice boasts an edge in all three departments. But the true differences between white and brown rice aren’t as meaningful as you might think. For example, one-half cup of cooked brown rice contains 1.6 grams of dietary fiber, whereas one-half cup of cooked white rice contains 0.3 grams. Sure, that fiber helps mitigate our glycemic (aka blood sugar) response after eating the rice, but a 1.3-gram fiber difference isn’t all that material. Consider the fact that just one tablespoon of chia seeds serves up 4 grams of dietary fiber; it’s not tough to make up that fiber difference elsewhere in the diet.
Of course we all want more fiber, more vitamins, and more minerals on our plates—and brown rice boasts an edge in all three departments. But the true differences between white and brown rice aren’t as meaningful as you might think.
Brown rice naturally has more magnesium and phosphorus compared to white rice, but the latter grain is commonly enriched, meaning that manufacturers add vitamins and minerals to white rice during processing. The result can look like higher levels of key nutrients like folic acid and iron in (enriched) white rice compared to brown rice.
And as far as refined grains go, standard white rice is pretty innocuous. Unlike packaged sweets or salty snacks that are full of added sugars, oils, and excessive sodium, plain old dried, white rice is typically made from one singular ingredient.
I’ll always push whole grains like brown rice over refined grains like white rice, but it’s worth noting that the differences between the two aren’t as stark as they’re made out to be, particularly if we’re eating moderate portions. So if you’ve been led to believe that white rice is significantly less nutritious than brown rice, or if you’ve been made to feel like your culture’s staple food is off-limits, rest assured that white rice (particularly when paired with some protein and high-fiber veggies or beans) has a place in a balanced diet.
Scooping out your bagel
Yes, I used to scoop out my bagels and no, I’m not proud of it. Because if eating a balanced breakfast is your aim, this just isn’t going to cut it. (And no, I’m not talking about cutting calories.)
To truly level up a bagel breakfast, choose a whole wheat bagel to fit in some whole grains, and make sure to add a source of satiating protein and healthy fat to help stabilize your blood sugar levels and keep you energized through the morning. Scrambled eggs and smashed avocado or smoked salmon and a high-protein cream cheese are great options for a balanced bagel sammy. Bonus points if you can add some microgreens to the mix.
Now can we get a moment of silence for all the bagels we’ve eviscerated over the years?
Opting for cauliflower crust pizza over a classic slice
Hear me out: I have nothing against cauliflower’s glow-up. I too add frozen cauli rice to my morning smoothies and have even been known to stir some into my oatmeal bowl for a baby nutrient boost. But if you’re looking to healthify pizza night, cauliflower pizza crust isn’t always the way to do it—especially for those with high cholesterol.
If you’re watching your lipid levels, choosing a cauli-based pizza crust could actually work against your goals. That’s because cauliflower pizza crusts typically require binding agents like eggs and cheese to help them stay together. As a result, some cauliflower pizzas are higher in cholesterol-raising saturated fat since they require more cheese to hold their crust together.
If you’re watching your lipid levels, choosing a cauli-based pizza crust could actually work against your goals. That’s because cauliflower pizza crusts typically require binding agents like eggs and cheese to help them stay together.
Take California Pizza Kitchen’s frozen thin-crust BBQ chicken pizza versus its frozen cauliflower crust BBQ chicken pizza. The seemingly ‘healthier’ cauli crust pizza actually delivers slightly more saturated fat, more sodium, and even more carbs per serving compared to the classic wheat-based alternative.
Cauliflower can be a solid way to sneak extra goodness into a meal, but the popular low-carb swap isn’t always the better (or even the lower-carb) choice.
Choosing sweet potatoes over white potatoes
It’s not wrong that ‘white’ carbs (think: white bread and white pasta) tend to be less nutrient-dense than 100 percent whole wheat bread or noodles. White starches typically fall into the ‘refined carbs’ category we talked about before.
White potatoes aren’t refined, though. Mama nature simply made them that way. And the idea that sweet potatoes are healthier than traditional white spuds isn’t really accurate. While sweet ‘tots contain way more of the antioxidant beta-carotene, white potatoes deliver four times as much vitamin C (which—gasp!—is also an antioxidant). And both types of potatoes put virtually equal amounts of potassium and fiber on your plate.
Permission to free white potatoes from their diet culture prison cell, granted.