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Great Food Swaps for Diabetes

The ultimate guide to having your cake and eating it too.


By the dLife Editors

When you’re living with diabetes, food swaps can mean the difference between deprived and delicious. Check out these great stand-ins for your higher carb favorites.

Mashed Potatoes

To have comforting, creamy, mashed potatoes without chalking up 35 grams of carbs in a one-cup serving, try this half and half strategy. Use half the amount of potatoes you want for your dish.

A medium potato contains about 33 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber per cup. Then use an equal amount of either turnips (about 8 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber per cup), rutabaga (about 15 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber per cup), cauliflower (about 3 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber per cup) or some combination of the three. Boil or microwave the potatoes and vegetables, and mash these up together. Add softened butter. Then, warm some cream or half-and-half in the microwave, and beat in until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. For extra flavor, add minced garlic (raw or gently cooked) to the butter mixture, or mix in some grated Parmesan, romano, or asiago cheese.

Crunchy Coating

Some things just aren’t the same without a crunchy crust around them, but a coating made with flour or bread crumbs can turn a healthy dish into a high-carb no-no. With a little creativity, you can have your crunch and stay in the healthy eating zone. Great, flavorful substitutions for bread crumbs—like nuts, seeds and pork rinds—can be chopped (or crushed up in a plastic storage bag) and used to coat fish filets, chicken, shrimp, veggies or anything else you’d normally coat with bread crumbs.

For crab cakes, meatballs and the like, try mixing up a paste of baking powder and beaten egg to use as a binder instead of bread crumbs and egg. (Extra hint: When making crab cakes, use real crabmeat; the imitation crab usually contains sugar and corn starch.)

Root Beer Float

If you’re vigilant about your sugar intake, one old-fashioned treat that you would never even consider is a root beer float.

Sugary soda with a giant scoop of ice cream? No way. Well, here’s a way.

You can use diet root beer, diet cream soda, or diet cola if that’s all you’ve got on hand. Otherwise, buy some sugar-free, flavored syrup and mix it with seltzer water. (Make sure the seltzer is new; don’t use it if it’s even just a tiny bit flat). These syrups are sold in dozens of flavors, so you can experiment with vanilla, cola, cherry, grape, coconut, caramel, etc. Add one scoop of no-sugar added or low-carb ice cream (don’t forget to look at carbs, calories and fat when comparing varieties). Depending on the ice cream you choose, you can end up savoring this nostalgic indulgence while taking in only 140 calories and 6 grams of carbs (the stats from one-half cup of Edy’s Carb Benefit Vanilla Bean).

French Fries

Using sweet potatoes or the crunchy vegetable called jicama (pronounced hik’-a-ma), you can enjoy crisp, salty fries now and then without the worry. And since white potatoes can raise blood sugar more rapidly than even table sugar, you’re wise to move them onto your “don’t go there” list.

Peel sweet potatoes, and then slice them up lengthwise like steak fries. Toss gently with extra virgin olive oil and seasonings of your choice, then bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes on each side. Keep in mind that although sweet potatoes are higher in fiber than white potatoes, they still contain about 17 grams of net carb in a modest 1/2-cup serving. Therefore, it’s important to keep an eye on portion size.

Jicama can be sliced thin (like matchsticks) and made either in the oven the same way (cut the time in half) or fried in a pan with a high-heat oil such as canola oil- or grapeseed oil -. You can also slice jicama super-thin like potato chips. Jicama is truly a low-carb superstar. With 11 grams of carb and 6 grams of fiber per cup, you end up with only 5 grams of net carb per serving.

Experiment with different spices on your fries, such as onion or garlic salt, paprika, or taco seasoning.

Chocolate Coated Confections

Do you love Goobers and Raisinets? Strawberries dipped in chocolate? Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts? With all the latest news on the health benefits of dark chocolate (and the advent of Splenda), these delicious confections need not be relegated to the “good old days” list. Cover antioxidant-rich berries such as blueberries, blackberries or raspberries with a coating of high-quality, unsweetened chocolate—and you’ve nearly got a health food! (Stick to a small handful, of course, and monitor your own reaction.)

Place your fruit or nuts in the freezer for 30 minutes. Melt a good-quality, unsweetened chocolate in a double boiler, whisking in a bit of cream, hot water, and Splenda or other sugar-free sweetener to taste. Remove your fruit or nuts from the freezer, dip them in the chocolate (using a fork, slotted spoon, or tongs), and spread them out on wax paper to harden. Pour into a Ziploc bag and take your homemade candy to the movies.

Turkey Wrap  

You’ve probably heard about the trick of rolling sliced lunch meats and cheese inside a lettuce leaf, and these little roll-ups do make for quick and tasty snacks. Also, large, dark green or red lettuce leaves are a great substitute for a burrito-size, white flour tortilla––which delivers about 60, nutritionally empty grams of carbohydrate.

Another option is choosing a low carb tortilla (or wrap), which will likely be made with soy or whole grain flour. You can take your wrap one step further on the health meter while also making something a bit more substantial, by swapping out that sliced turkey. Lunch meats are notoriously high in sodium, and they also contain nitrites or nitrates, preservatives that are potentially carcinogenic.

Brown ground turkey (antibiotic- and growth-hormone free if you can get it) in a saute pan with some olive oil and spices. You can simply use a dash of salt and pepper or sprinkle on chili powder and a little cayenne if you like a bit of fire. Spoon your seasoned turkey onto your lettuce leaves or low carb wrap, add shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, and avocado chunks. Roll it up and enjoy.

Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

Cauliflower is a great substitute for white noodles and white rice, because of its color, versatile texture, and because cauliflower is a member of that ultra-healthy family of cruciferous veggies. People who consume the most of these types of vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale) have lower rates of several kinds of cancer, and laboratory tests have shown that certain compounds in cruciferous vegetables actually stop the growth of many types of cancer cells.

One way to use cauliflower is to steam or boil it, chop it roughly, and then substitute it for half the macaroni in your favorite  mac and cheese recipe. Another option is to make a roasted cauliflower casserole, leaving out the pasta altogether. Chop cauliflower into chunks, and arrange in a baking dish. Add two to three cloves of garlic, minced. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze a lemon over the pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Bake in a 400-degree F oven for 20 minutes or until the tops are browned. Remove and sprinkle generously with grated Parmesan.

Rice Stand-Ins

Many people are still confused about whether or not white rice is good for you. For one, we are often told that the Asian way of eating is a healthy one, and we know they eat a lot of white rice. Also, we know grains are important for health and rice is very clearly a grain. The nitty-gritty can be found in the difference between a refined grain and a whole grain. White rice is a grain that has been refined—which means the nutrient-dense parts of it have been stripped away, leaving only the sticky, starchy center. This center, or endosperm, is essentially the nutritional equivalent of table sugar, and it has a similarly high impact on blood glucose.

The obvious better choice is brown rice, which is a whole grain rich in beneficial phytochemicals and fiber. A diet rich in whole grains is linked to decreased insulin resistance and increased insulin sensitivity, as well as an overall decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

However, brown rice isn’t the only choice. When brown rice doesn’t fit your needs––or if you just aren’t a fan of its texture and flavor––other great whole-grain options abound. Try barley, buckwheat (kasha), bulgur, or quinoa. Each of these grains has a slightly different texture and flavor, but all can be substituted for rice. They can be cooked on the stovetop in boiling water (or better yet, use chicken, beef, or vegetable broth). Read package directions for amounts and time. Always test in the last five to ten minutes to make sure the grains don’t become mushy. And be sure to keep portion sizes modest—one-half cup or less per meal.

Real Women Eat Frittatas

The problem with quiche is generally the pie crust. Flaky, tender, salty––and full of bad fats and nutritionally empty carbohydrates. A standard, 9-inch, ready-to-bake pie crust contains 41 grams of fat, 63 grams of carbohydrates, and 818 milligrams of sodium.

The good news is you don’t need the crust. Frittatas are delicious, can be made with an infinite variety of ingredients (i.e., whatever you’ve got in your kitchen), and stand alone beautifully in nice, triangle slices. Heat butter and olive oil in a 10-inch, saute pan that can go in the oven. Add garlic, onions, shallots, spinach, leeks––whatever you have. Reduce heat to medium-low. Beat 8 eggs with milk, salt, and pepper, and pour into pan. Lift your veggies with a spatula so egg mixture gets underneath. Once the sides lift easily from the pan, and the top is beginning to set, remove from heat. Sprinkle with grated cheese, layer with sliced tomatoes and herbs. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until center is cooked through.

Easy Split Pea Soup

When it’s cold outside, sometimes there’s nothing better than a steaming crock of chowder, bisque, or any creamy, rich soup. Cream-style corn and corn chowder are right up there with mashed potatoes when it comes to winter comfort foods. However, on the health meter and in terms of glycemic impact, many of these comforting choices rank pretty low. A somewhat old fashioned, off-the-beaten-track, healthy alternative? Split pea soup.

Split peas are relatively low in carbohydrates and have a lower glycemic index than some other legumes. Because they’re quick cooking and have the consistency of some favorite American comfort foods, split pea soup makes for a great meal on a chilly day. Add 2 quarts of cold water to 2 ¼ cups of well-rinsed split peas. Let soak overnight, or just simmer for two minutes and soak for an hour. Then, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer covered for about an hour and a half. Add seasonings (salt, fresh pepper, nutmeg) and diced vegetables, such as onion, celery, carrots, leeks, and cook uncovered until veggies are tender.

No Sufferin’ Succotash

A word made famous by Sylvester the Cat, succotash is a traditional, American side dish made of lima beans and corn kernels. Sweet, buttery, and easy on the mouth, it’s a high-fiber comfort food, but can be made more diabetes friendly with some substitutions.

Lima beans have a relatively low glycemic index value of 32 (under 55 is considered low), and a half-cup (of frozen baby limas) contains 18 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of protein. A perfect stand-in for limas, however, is the green soybean known as edamame. Generally available frozen, shelled or in the pod, these beans are very similar to lima beans, but a half-cup contain 10 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fiber, and 11 grams of protein. In addition, they are an excellent source of vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Green soybeans also contain all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein, and all of this means they are a very decent substitute for meat.

Instead of corn in your succotash, use diced, sauteed summer squash and yellow pepper. You’ll end up with a delicious side dish that looks just like succotash, with the same sweet and buttery flavors and textures, but a lot less impact on your sugar.

Eat it Whole

It’s a general rule of thumb, straight from the dietitians: Eating foods in their whole state, rather than mashed, pureed, juiced, etc., generally lessens the impact on blood sugar. For example, choose a baked potato over mashed, choose a whole apple over applesauce, and always choose the whole vegetable or the whole fruit rather than juicing it, so that you get all the beneficial fiber (which, don’t forget, cancels out some of those carbs) and the other nutrients stored in the skins and pulp.

An excellent illustration can be found in an orange. When you drink orange juice, you get the vitamin C but not the beneficial fiber and phytonutrients that come from the pulp. Even if you buy orange juice with pulp, you’re still not getting any of the fibrous white membrane, which is where the phytonutrients hide.

Nutrition science research is finding, increasingly, that it is not one substance or another that gives plant foods their disease-fighting power, but the interaction of these vitamins, antioxidants, and other plant chemicals. So, eat things the way Mother Nature presents them, and you won’t miss out on any hidden health benefits.

Macadamia Nuts

If you love shortbread or coconut butter cookies, try this trick. Take a handful of roasted macadamia nuts and close your eyes. Pop a few in your mouth and chew slowly. Crunchy, buttery, sweet––and taste that hint of coconut? They’re pretty densely packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. And because they are so rich and filling, macadamias are satiating. You’re less likely to overindulge. If you love the flavor, try some macadamia nut butter on a few apple or celery slices.

Ten to twelve macadamia nuts deliver about 200 calories and 20 grams of fat and are also very low in carbohydrates (4 grams), have little impact on blood sugar, and deliver protein (2 grams), fiber (2 grams), magnesium, iron, calcium, and a good assortment of other minerals. They can satisfy a sweet craving while contributing to heart health and blood sugar regulation.

Sprouted Bread

Be adventurous, and try something new this week: Buy some sprouted bread. Why? These breads  can be more nutrient-packed and have less impact on blood sugar than regular breads.

Formerly found only in the refrigerated sections of little health food stores, breads made from sprouted grains are increasing in popularity and availability. Traditional bread is made from grains––usually, little hard kernels––that are ground up and made into flour. Sprouted bread is made from grains that have been allowed to sprout before being ground. Once it sprouts, the grain contains a greater array of nutrients, and it may even decrease a bit in carbohydrates and glycemic impact. Jennie Brand-Miller and her colleagues—co-authors of The New Glucose Revolution and What Makes My Blood Glucose Go Up and Down?—theorize that when a grain begins to sprout, it is likely that it uses its most readily available carbohydrate to fuel the actual growing of the tiny shoot. The result would be fewer carbohydrates left after sprouting.

Virtually any grain that can be made into flour can be sprouted first, so browse the selection in your natural foods store and start experimenting. You may find you love the crunch of one or the tangy, nutty flavor of another.

Yogurt

If you like it, you probably already have your favorite yogurt varieties and know that it makes for a great snack or dessert if you watch the carb content. Soy yogurt is especially good for you, not only because it’s full of antioxidants, but because it appears to help regulate enzymes that affect blood sugar, and may help lower blood pressure, according to recent research.

But don’t forget that plain (non-soy) yogurt or Greek yogurt can stand in for mayonnaise or sour cream in virtually any recipe. Yogurt also makes a good ingredient in marinades, because the active cultures tenderize meat in the same way acids do. Yogurt can even be used in place of milk: Just add one-half teaspoon of baking powder to each cup of yogurt. Consider using creamy, full-fat yogurt. The low-fat and fat-free varieties often contain more sugar and other carbohydrates. Greek yogurt is even higher in protein and lower in carbs and sugar than plain yogurt. Here are tips for getting the most out of yogurt:

  • Make sure the yogurt you buy contains “live, active cultures” and lists the Latin names of these beneficial bacteria. Many of the health promoting properties of yogurt come from these bacteria.
  • To preserve the benefits of the active cultures, don’t heat yogurt above 120 degrees F.
  • Check the “sell by” dates on the yogurt tubs, and buy those that are most fresh. (Yogurt lasts for about ten days beyond the “sell by” date, but the sooner you eat it, the better, in terms of reaping the health benefits.)
  • Stirring yogurt makes it lose its consistency and become runny.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are an adult food––their earthy flavor and texture are for the sophisticated palate––but most of us never get much past the white, button mushrooms (officially known as agaricus) that top pizzas or find their way into soups and stews. Some of the other common varieties of these fascinating fungi are full of health benefits and worth experimenting with, such as: chanterelles, crimini, shiitake, oyster, enoki, portabello, porcini, and morel.

Research suggests that mushrooms may have anti-cancer properties, thanks to their rich array of phytochemicals and unique nutrient profile. Here are some substitutions that will crank up the health quotient of your meal, and also deliver the sumptuous, one-of-a-kind flavors:

  • Grilled portabellos in place of a bun for turkey, salmon, or beef burgers.
  • A medley of sauteed mushrooms for half or more of the breading in stuffing.
  • In place of some of the mayo or other fat, add raw, chopped, or whole mushrooms to chicken, tuna, or other salads.
  • Finely chopped, sauteed mushrooms to replace half of the ground beef in a recipe for pasta sauce, chili, tacos, or burritos.

A Glass of Tea

Soft drinks have been implicated repeatedly in this country’s obesity epidemic. Studies show that the rise in obesity directly parallels the rise in our consumption of sugary soft drinks. While diet sodas and drinks abound, most experts agree it is wise to limit consumption of artificial sweeteners as well.

Water and seltzer are great options to quench your thirst, but why not use the opportunity to get a few more healthy nutrients in?

There are more types of tea on the market today than anyone could ever count. And they’re full of health benefits—think antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, to name a few. So why not experiment with herbal, black, green, and white teas (Tazo makes some delicious blends), and find your favorites? Once you do, brew up a pot, let it cool and keep it in your fridge so you can grab a healthy “soft” drink any time you want.

Updated by Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE.


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