When you first decide to go low carb or ketogenic, there’s a tendency to want to transition slowly. We sometimes want to ease in. It’s easier to dip our toes into the water first. Making the switch from a standard American diet to a low carb or ketogenic diet is an huge change, and it’s difficult to embrace the idea of going cold turkey.
However, that may be what you have to do.
Before we get into the carb substitutes, let’s look at how each of these diet works. Once you understand how they work, it’ll be easy to see why going cold turkey might be the best idea, and the easiest way for you to switch your eating habits.
Low Carb – How it works
The basis for both of these diets is similar. When we eat food, we use it to fuel our bodies. More specifically, when we eat carbs, our bodies use the glucose for energy. It’s a great energy source and it gets the job done.
Some extra glucose is stored to be used later, and any excess after that is stored on our bodies as fat.
That’s one of the main reasons we see people walking around with large bellies – excess glucose can lead to visceral fat, which is the fat stored within the abdominal cavity, surrounding and tucked in between and around our organs. Visceral fat often leads to or signifies diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems.
So it’s logical to then assume that if we eat fewer carbs, we’re taking in less glucose, which means there’s less to eventually be stored as fat on our bodies. This is pretty much the basis for low carb diets. Don’t give your body more glucose than it can use for energy.
The tricky part about low carb diets, though, is figuring out how to balance the rest of your food. There isn’t a cut and dry way to determine exactly how much of each macronutrient you should get, and those macros are super important.
Keto – How it works
Keto is similar to a low carb diet in a few ways. The most important similarity is the restriction of carbohydrates. However, keto actually changes the way your metabolism works.
When you start keto, you restrict your carbs to fewer than 20 grams per day. This is the key to keto. Your body typically relies on those carbs for energy. When it realizes that the carbs ain’t comin’, your body searches for other energy sources. That’s when it turns to fat.
Fat is actually a great energy source when it comes to fueling our bodies. When we restrict our carbs, our bodies naturally burn fat instead. This is a process called ketosis. Just like with a low carb diet, reducing carbs means less glucose to be stored on the body. Your fat intake will give you energy and keep you full. Just remember not to overdo it on the fat!
Macronutrients – What are they, and why are they important?
There are two different types of nutrients that our diets consist of: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are carbs, fat, and protein. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Although we might discuss micronutrients in a later post, for now we’ll focus strictly on macronutrients.
When it comes to the three macronutrients, it’s important to understand how each one functions in your diet, and why it is important. Every food has a specific macronutrient makeup, so once you know what your target macros are, you’ll be able to see how different foods fit into your daily intake.
For the most part, everyone on a low carb diet understands what a carbohydrate is and how it factors into their diets. Carbs are made up of small chains of sugar molecules. Our bodies break down those sugars and turn them into glucose. Carbs are found in foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, chips, fruits, and so on.
For a long time now, people have associated fat with things like heart disease, but more scientists and researchers are declaring that fat is not, in fact, as bad for you as we’ve been led to believe. The truth is, our bodies and brains thrive on fat. It helps our cell function and protects our bodies’ organs. Good fats come from foods such as avocado, salmon, nuts, olives, and oils.
Protein is an incredibly important macronutrient. It keeps our muscles strong and is essential for a healthy immune system. Good sources of protein include beans, legumes, avocado, lean meats, spinach, and kale.
How do I figure out my macronutrient ratios?
What percentage of your calories should come from each macronutrient? That depends on the type of diet that you’re on, and this is one of the key differences between a traditional low carb diet and a ketogenic diet.
A low carb diet simply means, as stated earlier in this article, that you’re lowering your daily intake of carbs. Being low carb does not necessarily mean that someone has a high protein intake, or low fat. All low carb really means is low carb, because there are lots of different types of low carb diets.
What to do for a typical low carb diet
As your carbohydrate intake lowers, your fat intake should increase – somewhat. They shouldn’t necessarily be proportional if you’re doing a traditional low carb diet. Remember that every food that you eat is made up of these three macronutrients. Where you’re cutting one out, it has to be replaced by something else.
If you’re going low carb to lose weight, and in doing so, you increase your fat intake as much as you decrease your carbohydrate intake, you’re simply replacing stored glucose with fat. Either way, it’s an excess of fat and it will lead to more weight.
However, if you go low carb and you also try to focus on a low fat diet, you’re going to run into a different problem. Fat helps fill us up. If you’re not getting enough fat, you’re basically sabotaging yourself. You’ll be hungry all the time and likely have no energy. This kind of diet isn’t sustainable, and will only lead to cheating. (Also, remember that if you cut your carbohydrate and fat intakes, you’re likely to be eating too few calories, which can send your body into starvation mode. It’s not worth it!)
It’s incredibly important that on low carb, you balance things out, and determining how to balance your diet is most likely something you’ll have to experiment with. Start by cutting your carbs and setting a goal for your fat. (Check out macro calculators online. This one from ruled.me is a good resource.) If you give that a shot and you’re always hungry, even though you’re technically eating enough, your fat intake is probably too low. If you’re struggling to lose weight even after cutting things out and watching your calories, your fat intake might be too high. Test it out until you find what works for you. (Adjusted your macros and still having trouble? Check out “12 Reasons Your Low Carb Diet Isn’t Working.”)
What to do for a ketogenic diet
If you’re going ketogenic, your ratios will be a little different. As you lower your daily intake of carbs, you’ll replace them (mostly) with fat. The important thing to remember here is exactly how the science works. Normally, your body would burn glucose (carbs) for energy. On a ketogenic diet, you’re taking away so many carbs that your body looks for other sources of energy. That’s where the fat comes in. Your body starts burning that fat for energy instead, and the weight begins to fall off.
In terms of how to adjust your macros for this phenomenon, you’ll need to increase your fat intake. However, there’s a fine balance – if you increase it too much, then you’re just taking in excess fat too, and we know that excess fat makes you… well, fat. It’s also important to watch your protein intake, because too much protein triggers gluconeogenesis (turning protein into glucose). However, not enough protein, and you risk muscle loss.
Because it’s so different for everybody, the key here is to use a macro calculator. Put in all of your information, get your daily recommended percentages, and try it out. You’ll be able to tell if you need to make adjustments based on the way your body responds. (Want more information on tracking your macros? Check out my article, “Are You Sabotaging Yourself By Not Tracking Your Macros?”.)
Once you’re in a routine, a low carb diet can be really easy to follow. However, it can definitely be overwhelming at first. You’re supposed to figure out these percentages, track your food, analyze your body’s response… and manage food cravings at the same time.
Yep. That part just sucks.
To make it suck a little less, I’ve come up with some easy substitutions that can help you feel as though you’re still eating your favorite carbs. Trick your mind into feeling as though you’re not dieting, and the diet will be that much easier.
On to the food!
Yes, you can still eat spaghetti when you’re low carb. Although, technically, you won’t actually be eating spaghetti noodles, per se.
- Zucchini noodles: Surely you’ve heard of zoodles by now, right? Zucchini noodles are one of the most popular pasta substitutes out there today. They’re a little trendy, even. The best part about the zucchini noodles is that they’re pretty tasteless, so they pick up the flavor of whatever you’re eating them with. Using a spiralizer gives them the noodle shape. The great thing about zucchini noodles? Call ‘em zoodles and give them to your kids. They love them!
- Spaghetti squash: Spaghetti squash is a little bit higher in carbs, so keep an eye on them if you’re doing keto. Otherwise, this squash is a slightly sweet replacement for pasta. After it’s cooked, the meat of the squash scrapes right out in long, stringy noodles. Perfect for topping with spaghetti sauce or alfredo sauce!
- Shirataki noodles: Shirataki noodles are thin Japanese noodles made from the konjac yam. You’ve probably seen them packaged and sold as Miracle Noodles, Nooodles, NuPasta, Skinny Noodles, or Better than Pasta. All these brands are selling the same thing. Don’t be turned off when you first open the package; shirataki noodles are packaged in liquid with often has an off-putting scent. Just rinse your noodles well before cooking, and they’ll take on the flavor of the food you’re cooking them with. They don’t have much flavor on their own, but the consistency is very similar to that of real spaghetti noodles – guaranteed, it’ll fool your kids!
When people think low carb, bread is usually the first thing they expect to lose. However, you can use some of the substitutions below to have your sandwich, and eat it too.
- Cloud bread: Cloud bread does not have the consistency of regular sandwich bread, so if that’s what you’re looking for, move on to number 2. Cloud bread has a bit of a spongy texture, almost like angel food cake. It’s great for quick little sandwiches, and I’ve made plenty of breakfast sandwiches on it. It works perfectly as a hamburger bun, too. There are lots of recipes out there, but don’t be afraid to try the simple 3 ingredient recipes first – cream cheese, eggs, and baking powder. That’s it! And it’s so easy, even your kids can help.
- Low carb sandwich bread: It’s not impossible to find low carb sandwich bread, but you’re going to pay a little more for it. Still, at about 6 net carbs per slice, it might be worth it for you, depending on how much you love your bread! Do some googling and you’ll see tons of low carb grocery stores selling a variety of low carb loaves. Some brave souls out there make their own – if that’s your jam, go for it!
- Low carb tortillas: Personally, I’m just as happy eating a big, fat, stuffed wrap as I am eating a sandwich. Keep your eyes peeled; most grocery stores now carry low carb wraps. (I am a huge fan of the Flatout ProteinUP Carb Down wraps! They make awesome quesadillas!) These are perfect for packing in a lunch box or taking on the go. These are great for low carb kids, too – make the wrap, then cut it into little bite-sized rounds.
Let’s face it – you’re never going to find a low carb Hershey’s bar. However, the following substitutions are so good, you might not miss it.
- Fat bombs: There are about a million recipes out there for an insanely wide variety of fat bombs, and plenty of them include chocolate. This can be a quick way to not only quench those cravings, but to also help manage your macros. Win-win! Make your own in these cute silicone molds.
- Low carb chocolate: Sometimes we get so wrapped up in “low carb” that we forget that there’s a whole market out there for diabetics. Take advantage of products that aren’t necessarily labeled low carb, but have no added sugar. For example, Purdys Chocolatier has a whole section of no sugar added chocolate. Most come out to about 2 net carbs for a decent sized piece of chocolate.
- Dark chocolate bars: If you just want something quick and small to take care of that craving, experiment with darker chocolate. Over time, I’ve begun to prefer the Lindt 90% cacao bars. One or two squares of that at the end of the night, and my cravings are satisfied!