One of the biggest fads of the last 10 years has been swapping some traditional favourites for other options at the dinner table. Staples such as spaghetti have been replaced by vegetables in all shapes and forms to lighten the load at the end of the day.
Research suggests eating lighter in the evening, and finishing your meal earlier rather than later helps improve metabolic health outcomes such as your blood lipid profile, blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. This is because genes and hormones responsible for metabolising food are on a circadian rhythm, and most people are better able to handle calories and carbohydrates earlier in the day.
These substitutions allow you to enjoy your traditional meal but with potentially less metabolic concerns than the standard fare. But how do these stack up nutritionally? Obviously if you’re using a vegetable in place of pasta, the carbohydrate content is far lower and the nutrient density of the meal will rise.
Other than carbohydrate and calories, pasta holds little nutritive value. I’m not suggesting if you’re a pasta or rice lover that it is never a good idea to eat these. But if you put either of these side by side with pretty much any vegetable, they will fall short in the nutrient department.
One of the biggest hits in this department is the spaghetti squash — more readily available now than a few years ago, it is consistently in my local supermarket and fruit and vegetable shop.
The yellow, oblong vegetable is much like a marrow when it is raw, with large seeds in the middle. However, when cooked the inside of the squash can be pulled away into strands that resemble spaghetti. It even tastes a little like pasta, making it a substitute for noodles for those that want a lighter meal.
Indeed, this is a low-calorie vegetable, and while most of its calories do come from carbohydrate, overall the carbohydrate content is low, with only 6.5gper 100g serving. While spaghetti squash contains a broad range of micronutrients, including B vitamins, beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), vitamins C, E and K and potassium, the overall contribution to your daily diet from this vegetable would be low.
Courgettes are another great sub-in for spaghetti, and there are a number of kitchen appliances you can use to create noodles or fettuccine — I recently purchased an electric spiraliser, which has made it super-easy to create “courgetti” (as a left-handed person I struggled with the manual ones).
Courgette contains several micronutrients (albeit in small amounts) such as beta carotene, B vitamins, vitamin C and potassium, with some dietary fibre in there too. Like the spaghetti squash, it is very low in carbohydrate with just 3.3g per 100g. You don’t need a fancy machine here either — a vegetable peeler will do the same thing and this can be one of the easiest stand-ins.
Beetroot, parsnip and carrot will all provide additional colour to your pasta meal and are good sources of betacarotene, potassium and vitamin C, with around quarter to half the amount of carbohydrate as pasta. Beetroot is also a great source of dietary nitrates, which help our vascular system, improve blood flow and have been found to lower blood pressure.
While these might offer more flavour than the other vegetables, even swapping half of your spaghetti for these would boost the nutrient content of your meal. It might be a great way to get the kids eating more vegetables too.
The miracle noodle
One more slightly unusual ingredient which I’ve recently tried is the “Miracle Noodle”. This is becoming more available in supermarkets and can be picked up quite readily at fruit and vegetable shops that also have a lot of international food products.
Also seen as “Slim Pasta”, the translucent noodle looks like rice noodles but is made up of konjac. Konjac is a root that has been grown in China, Korea, Japan and most of Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. It is made up of water and fibre which is ground down, boiled and fashioned into a noodle and then cooled to solidify.
We buy it cased in water because it is very delicate. It does have an unusual aroma, therefore follow the instructions to rinse it properly to remove the smell, then dry-fry it in a pan. It was an excellent substitute in our recent pasta meal.
The fibre in the konjac is 40 per cent comprised of glucomannan, a soluble fibre that helps keep you fuller for longer by delaying gastric emptying, and clinical studies have shown that when eaten daily for a few weeks, it may help improve blood lipid profile and lower blood sugar levels, therefore is useful in place of traditional pasta for those people wanting to improve their metabolic health.
Glucomannan is also a prebiotic fibre that helps feed our good gut bacteria, however it is not always well tolerated, particularly if you are sensitive to fructans (part of the FODMAP-containing foods I’ve written about before). This doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to enjoy these! However, you may need to be careful with the amount you use (perhaps mix with some of the above options such as courgettes, which are low in fructans) and if you haven’t already, work on some gut-healing strategies to help improve your ability to handle eating these foods.