Worried about not being able to stock up with rice or pasta? Well, don’t! Pasta and rice can provide the basis of a cheap and easy meal, but there are alternatives. They’re just as cheap and easy, have the added bonus of being super-nutritious, and the supermarkets are full of them.  They might even improve your health and give your immune system a helping hand at a time when health is front of mind.

So many alternatives

Green vegetables are a fantastic alternative to pasta and go well with any pasta sauce. Try shredded cabbage (green or white), broccoli, green beans, greens or kale. After all – what’s the best part about spaghetti Bolognese?  It’s the Bolognese sauce, isn’t it? And the cheese. The pasta’s just a vehicle. 

Spiralised courgettes or carrots make brilliant spaghetti substitutes, too. (A spiraliser is like a pencil sharpener for veg, yielding thin slices or ribbons. You can get the same effect with a potato peeler and a bit of effort. Or just chop the veg …). For lasagne you could use grilled or fried slices of aubergine or courgette to get some layers with extra vitamins and phytonutrients. 

For rice, try cauliflower ‘rice’. You can buy it ready made in some supermarkets, but if you’ve got a cheese grater or food processor, you can just grate or finely chop some cauliflower. (Cheaper, too.) You can also ‘rice’ broccoli or mix the two. Like rice, cauli or broccoli rice are fairly bland so provide a great way to mop up a tasty sauce or topping. In fact you might want to try cauliflower mash – a nutrient-dense alternative to mashed potatoes which mops up a stew or gravy deliciously and can take all the same additions like butter, cream, garlic and chives.

Veg pack a nutritional punch

Compared to starchy carbs like pasta and rice, non-starchy vegetables win hands down in the nutrition stakes. At a time when we’re all doing what we can to stay healthy, good nutrition is a key way to support our immune system. Extra vitamins and minerals and a variety of different foods will all help. (Here’s my blog on 10 ways to support your immune system.)

Let’s compare the nutrient value, preparation and cost of cooked white spaghetti (170g portion when cooked) and a cooked Savoy cabbage (150g portion when shredded and cooked).  I’ve included info about vitamins and minerals if they differ significantly between the two.

  Spaghetti Cabbage
Cost per serving 8p 14p
Carbohydrate 61g 4 – 5g
Fibre 2.2g 3.6g
Vitamin C (% daily requirement) 90%
Folic acid (% daily requirement) 57%
Calories 300 kcal 48 kcal
Protein 10g 3g
Time to cook (in boiling water) 10 mins 5 mins
Time to prepare 1 min

Nutritional values taken from www.tesco.com and cross referenced with Carb and Calorie Counter (www.carbsandcals.com)

Cabbage is a smidge more expensive, but is still low-cost. Nutritionally, cabbage has more fibre, vitamin C, folic acid (vitamin B9) and a tenth of the carbohydrate of spaghetti. Spaghetti has more protein, although if both were served with a meat sauce, say, or some cheese, both meals would supply protein. The spaghetti has six times more calories.

What about cooked white basmati rice (190g portion when cooked) and cauliflower ‘rice’ (130g portion when cooked)?  My ‘recipe’ for cauliflower rice is to either grate it or chop it to rice-sized pieces in the food processor then dry fry it.

  Basmati rice Cauliflower ‘rice’
Cost per serving 18p 15p
Carbohydrate 48g 4 – 5g
Fibre 1g 2.5g
Vitamin C (% daily requirement) 70%
Folic acid (% daily requirement) 43%
Calories 228 kcal 49 kcal
Protein 6.3g 4.7g
Time to cook 10-12 mins 3 – 4 mins
Time to prepare 5 min

Nutritional values taken from www.tesco.com and cross referenced with Carb and Calorie Counter (www.carbsandcals.com)

Again, nutritionally, the comparison between the two is similar to that for the spaghetti and cabbage, although the cauliflower has two and a half times more fibre than the rice.

Consider the carbs… but why?

Something to consider is the carbohydrate content of these different foods. If you are at higher risk from coronavirus because you have type 2 diabetes, reducing starchy carbohydrates could be helpful.  Many organisations globally, including the British Dietetic Association (BDA), Diabetes UK, and Diabetes.co.uk here in the UK now recognise carbohydrate restriction to be an effective way to manage diabetes.

If you’re trying to manage blood sugar (ie blood glucose), for example if you have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, NICE guidelines recommend low GI (glycaemic index) sources of carbohydrate. Low GI foods tend not to raise blood glucose, either because they contain few carbohydrates at all (eg eggs) or they contain mainly types of carbohydrates that don’t raise blood sugar much, such as fibre. By contrast, high GI foods tend to contain carbs that digest down quickly to larger amounts of glucose and so cause blood sugar to rise quickly. Examples of high GI foods are refined or starchy carbs like flours, pasta, rice and potatoes and sweet fruits like bananas and mangoes. Green veg are low GI foods while pasta and rice are high GI foods and will therefore have different effects on your blood sugar and your body.

Here’s a NICE-endorsed chart showing the GI content of some common foods and how they might affect your blood glucose in terms of teaspoons of sugar. Ie a 150g serving of basmati rice is likely to have the same effect on your blood sugar as 10 teaspoons of sugar.  You can find the teaspoon equivalents of more common foods, plus information about the relevant NICE guidelines here.

Source: www.phcuk.org/nice

So, if you wanted to get more vitamins and fibre into your diet (or into your children!), why not give the veg option a go?  Swaps like this work brilliantly for people who are wanting to lose weight or reverse type 2 diabetes with a low carb, real food diet.  I’ve listed some low carb recipe resources at the end of this blog so you can get some more info and inspiration.  It’s true it might need a bit more imagination or effort than opening a packet – but if we’re self-isolating or working from home time is something we might have a bit more of.  And the nutritional upsides are so worth having.

But don’t we need to eat carbohydrate?

Not really. There are ‘essential’ fats (omegas 3 and 6) and essential amino acids (protein building blocks) which we have to eat because our body can’t make them. But there are no essential carbohydrates because we can make it, in the form of glucose, in our liver.  Production kicks in whenever our clever bodies detect that levels are getting low. So you don’t need to worry about not having something starchy with every meal.  Life without bread might also seem bewildering, impossible even, but your body might thank you for it if you have to cut down. Who says you can’t have tuna salad or last night’s leftovers for breakfast? Or, shock horror…. bacon and eggs!

Important: if you are on medications, particularly for type 2 diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure, consult your GP or practice nurse if you decide to cut sugar/starchy carbs/refined carbs significantly from your current consumption level. Your medications might need adjusting.

A blessing in disguise

So maybe not being able to get hold of pasta or rice could be a blessing in disguise. There are alternatives, they’re comparable in price, more nutritious, are available, and do more to support your immune system. And you won’t have to stress about not being able to get any! No one needs extra stress at the moment.

Recipe resources

Many of these reference carbs or diabetes, but they’re full of recipes and inspiration for meals that don’t rely on starchy carbs like rice, pasta and bread, or processed, pre-prepared foods. There are many more books and websites out there to explore, too. These are just a few.

The Low-Carb Diabetes Cookbook by Dr David Cavan & Emma Porter
The Diabetes Weight-loss Cookbook by Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi

Lou is a registered health coach with interests in weight management, nutrition and real food, lifestyle medicine and workplace health. You can find out more at www.louwalker.com.