Cartoon of happy hamburger on lettuce
Easy Substitution Strategies: Less starch and sugar, more vibrant health

Foods made from flour and/or sugar are everywhere! If we don’t actively fend them off, they can fill up our meals from morning to night. Think of the free breakfast at a mid-range hotel: toast, cereal, waffles, pancakes, pastries, bagels (fortunately usually also some eggs and oatmeal!). Then maybe a sandwich for lunch, with its bread, bun or wrap, plus a sugary drink, chips and cookies. (This combo was provided by the Fairfax County Health Department, yes the Health Department to the volunteers at COVID testing and vaccination events ).

Healthy food plate with chickpeas, vegetables and hard-boiled eggs
This is more like it! Illustration by Jan Ziegler

At dinnertime, there might be a sugary cocktail, hamburger buns, rolls, noodles, pasta, cornbread, breading on fried foods, garlic bread, pizza crust, baked goods for dessert, ice cream, and more. I grew up thinking that these foods were normal, healthy, even inevitable. I knew I should limit cake and cookies, but I thought bread, crackers, pretzels and granola bars (especially if marked “multigrain” or “fat-free”) were great food choices.

When we think about “processed foods” or “junk food” notorious examples come to mind, sodas, French fries, potato chips, and artificially flavored snack cakes (yuck!). But bagels and waffles and bread and buns and crackers and pretzels are processed foods too, providing mainly empty calories. In fact, these are ultra-processed foods, they are created from ingredients which are already highly processed (sugar, flour, corn syrup, industrial vegetable oils). They are mostly starch, which is long chains of sugar (see my previous blog post on this topic). The natural fiber and nutrients from the wheat have been processed away and whatever vitamins might be on the label have been added artificially, like a powdered vitamin pill. The food industry loves flour and sugar too. They have a long shelf life and are easy to form into a wide range of processed foods.

Refined-grain foods are soft and easy to chew, so we eat them faster, perhaps getting ahead of our natural fullness/satiety mechanism. They tend to raise our blood sugar quickly, putting us on the roller coaster of being hungry again later as our levels drop again. And they provide lots of calories but poor nutrition, and maybe after eating them, our bodies are still hungry because they’re looking for the protein and nutrients we really need?

There is abundant evidence that refined-grain foods increase the risk of chronic diseases (whole plant foods take us the other way!). According to the Arthritis Foundation, refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, which is not only bad for arthritis but may also increase your risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

And here’s the Healthline website on refined grains and diabetes or prediabetes: White bread, rice, and pasta are high carb, processed foods. Eating bread, bagels, and other refined-flour foods has been shown to significantly increase blood sugar levels in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. … These processed foods contain little fiber. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. In other research, replacing these low-fiber foods with high fiber foods was shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Moreover, people with diabetes experienced reductions in cholesterol. Increased fiber consumption also improved gut microbiota, which may have led to improved insulin resistance.”

Healthy dinner with salmon, salad, grapes and yogurt
I am totally not feeling deprived with this kind of food!

This points to GREAT news about eating whole plants. Whole plants in their intact, natural form still have all of their fiber, and they contain a wide range of beneficial substances (phytonutrients) that we don’t fully understand, but that work in harmony with each other. Like exercise, whole plant foods can improve our health and well-being in almost all areas. Eating the rainbow of vegetables and fruits, the recommended five servings a day or more, in a range of varieties and colors, can help:

  • Moderate blood sugar and prevent or even potentially reverse prediabetes or diabetes
  • Reduce the risk of many types of cancer
  • Improve heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Keep us full with their fiber
  • Help us avoid or reverse obesity
  • Improve digestive function and avoid constipation and other issues
  • Increase the diversity of our gut bacteria, which has effects we’re only starting to understand
  • Even help protect us against cognitive decline!
(Mostly) removing refined-grain and sugary foods from my eating plan, and replacing them with whole plant foods (that is, plants in their natural form recognizable from the farm), was the main shift that allowed me to get healthier and recover from obesity in 2014.

Whole plants? Aren’t they expensive, hard to prepare, easy to waste, and maybe not your favorite choices? Sure, there are many examples of all of those. But there are also affordable, accessible, easy, delicious options. Let’s explore them!


When we think about it, the flavor is in the seasonings, not the starch or sugar itself. Plain pasta with nothing on it is just a gummy mess. A commercial hamburger bun on its own is a flavorless blob. And how many spoonfuls of plain sugar would you eat?

When I was growing up, my mom sometimes ate diet foods which consisted of things like cottage cheese, canned peaches, boiled chicken breast, and weird candies (remember Ayds?). No flavor! But there’s no reason for that! Herbs and spices in all their variety, as well as hot peppers, garlic, onions, curry paste, olive oil, tomato sauce, and many other seasonings, have health benefits as well as adding flavor. (Just watch out for sauces with lots of added sugar.)

Carrier foods: Better with vegetables or just a fork!

A lot of foods just serve to carry other, more flavorful foods to our mouths: the pita chips carry the hummus, the bun carries the hamburger, the bread carries the sandwich. Each of these carrier foods gives us 200 calories (or more), with very little nutrition. Here are some ideas I use for saving those calories and adding a whole-plant boost:

Dips being eaten with a fork instead of chips
Fork, a great calorie-free dipping tool! Illustration by Jan Ziegler
  • Cut-up vegetables are crunchy and useful for dipping. Besides the usual carrots and celery, I love cucumber slices (especially the kind with a tender skin that comes wrapped in plastic) and sweet tiny tomatoes.
  • I did struggle a bit to replace tortilla chips to eat salsa and guacamole. Sometimes I use jicama when I can find it. But usually now I just put the salsa and guacamole (or sliced avocado) on my plate with the rest of my food and enjoy them as a flavorful condiment (a bit like cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving).
  • I LOVE hamburgers on lettuce and will never go back to buns! Most restaurants now offer them this way on request. I also put a hamburger or other meat right on top of a salad and eat it with a fork, delicious!
  • Same with sandwiches: some work well with lettuce (tuna salad scooped up with a firm lettuce like romaine!), and with others, I just eat the filling without the bread, for example rolled-up turkey breast dipped in mustard, with a vegetable on the side. A sweeter sandwich filling like peanut butter can become a dip with apple slices.
Cartoon of smiling hamburger on lettuce
Illustration by Jan Ziegler

Substitutions for pasta, noodles, and white rice: Flavorful roasted or stir-fried vegetables

Stir-fry with chicken and broccoli
One of my stir-fry dinners with no starch needed

Dishes with pasta, noodles, and white rice can be just as flavorful and satisfying if we leave off the starch and increase the vegetable component. For instance:

  • For a stir-fry, I just increase the vegetables (sometimes with a store-bought bagged or frozen stir-fry mix) and skip the rice or noodles. Brown rice is also a good whole-plant choice. I go crazy with herbs, spices, garlic, and ginger for tons of flavor as well as health benefits.
  • Instead of pasta, I put the same flavorful sauce (I love Rao’s!) over roasted or stir-fried vegetables. I love to do this with zucchini, onions, mushrooms, and eggplant. I roast vegetables in large batches once a week so I have them ready to go. See my blog posts on batch-cooking vegetables here and here!
  • I’ve been trying and enjoying the new pasta substitutes made from various beans and legumes. These are not intact whole-plant foods, of course, but they can be great choices, full of fiber and protein. I really like the one made from black beans.

Sweet treats: Try fruit, nuts and oats

Sugar deserves its own blog post (or many!). The combination of sugar and flour, plus unhealthy fats like processed oils or shortening, is especially insidious. It seems to bypass the mechanism that tells us we’ve had enough. We’d never overeat plain sugar, plain flour, or vegetable oil (yuck!), but put them together in a doughnut and we can gulp down 500 calories and still look around for more.

Here are some ideas for satisfying our natural human love of sweets with whole-plant ingredients:

  • Frozen berries are usually more affordable (and easier to store) than fresh, and they can be added to yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal and more.
  • I buy whatever fruits are in season and on sale more affordable and usually more flavorful, win-win!
  • I love making power bowls, for instance with cut-up apple or other fresh fruit, berries, raw old-fashioned oatmeal flakes (a whole grain) or cooked oatmeal, two tablespoons of almond butter or natural peanut butter (I can easily overdo it with almond butter, so yummy!), a handful of sunflower, hemp or pumpkin seeds, and plenty of cinnamon.
  • Fruit, especially berries, with plain Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr is so delicious! I like also adding sunflower seeds and cinnamon.
  • A drizzle of honey or real maple syrup, or a spoonful of jam over a bowl with fruit, yogurt, oats, nuts and seeds does add some sugar, but it is a much better choice than the typical dessert.
  • Dark chocolate in reasonable amounts can be a healthy choice. Pair it with whole plants like nuts and fruits.
  • Vegetables for dessert? Yes!! Microwaved or roasted sweet potatoes or winter squash are fabulous with cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice and a bit of honey, raw sugar, or maple syrup. Again, we are adding some sugar but making a much better choice than the typical dessert.

What about breakfast?

Why is breakfast in the United States often a sticky, sugary mess? Here are some ideas for getting more whole plants with our breakfasts:

  • Add a banana, berries (thawed frozen are great) or other fruit to high-fiber cereal or oatmeal (to evaluate cereals, check the Fiber Rule, see the box below!)
  • Try an overnight oats” recipe with fruit
  • Add fruit and nuts to plain Greek yogurt
  • Add frozen chopped spinach to a protein shake or smoothie it has a mild flavor and you likely won’t notice it is there!
  • Add a chopped frozen mix of onions and peppers to scrambled eggs or an omelet.
  • Slice a tomato to accompany your eggs
  • One of my favorites: enjoy leftovers for breakfast!
  • Just grab a hard-boiled egg or two, a banana and an easy-peel mandarin or tangerine, and you’re out the door for a super-quick breakfast!

The Fiber Rule

Whole-grain label alert! The rules are fuzzy about using words like “made from whole grains”
and “multigrain” on labels, so we can’t assume these indicate a truly healthy product. Fortunately, the
fiber content versus total carbohydrates on the nutrition label provides a much more accurate picture.
Real whole grains have plenty of fiber, because they contain the husk of the grain as well as the starch.
Look for at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of total carbohydrate, a ratio of 2 to 10 is even
Many breads, crackers, cereals and pastas bragging about their whole grain content fall far
short; check out the labels next time you’re shopping! Here is a great summary from Harvard Health.

Whole-plant snacks on the go!

For many of us, the pitfall comes when we are busy and hungry, and we grab whatever is available. It’s great to keep some whole plants on hand to nourish and satisfy us and tame cravings.

  • Nuts provide protein and healthy fats as well as fiber. A serving is about as much as you can hold in an open cupped hand. Pre-bagging servings is a great way to enjoy nuts without going overboard, since they are calorie-dense.
  • Dried fruits are similar – calorie-dense but full of fiber and flavor. Pre-bagging a reasonable amount can be a great strategy.
  • Popcorn is a whole grain! There are several brands of tasty packaged popped popcorn without too much added fat (or sugar).
  • Of course apples, oranges and bananas are classics to eat on the go.
  • Whatever we would pack for a lunch (leftovers for the win!) can be a great snack too.
  • Along with all the processed and sugary stuff, convenience stores typically sell carrot sticks, apples, bananas, and sometimes packaged salads. They also usually offer hard-boiled eggs, to keep you going with more protein.
  • If you’re traveling and don’t have a kitchen, you can still get pre-bagged salads, cut vegetable sticks, and of course fruit at a supermarket along the way.

Do we have to substitute EVERYTHING?

In 2014, I changed my way of eating fundamentally, and I’ve happily continued with that new lifestyle. This guide to a whole foods plant-based diet (with some meat) comes about the closest to my own plan.

However, I’ve always allowed limited exceptions, and it worked well for me. I find that I can follow a rough 80/20 rule. But I don’t mean that 80% of things the food companies say are healthy, or the foods I used to think were healthy, like granola bars. I mean that 80 percent of my food comes from a farm, not a factory: pastured animal products, fish, fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, olive oil and true whole grains (with lots of herbs and spices!), and then I can play around with the other 20 percent. I do need to stay conscious and intentional, though, or I will steadily gain excess fat again, as I found when I ate all the Belgian things.

What about gluten-free flours, alternative sweeteners and other substitute products?

Packaged plant-based protein products
Plant-based processed foods that help fill my protein quota

Food companies are happy to provide us with all sorts of substitute products, from artificial sweeteners to gluten-free flours. Of course, a product like rice flour can be truly helpful for those who need to avoid gluten because of an allergy or intolerance. But it’s also a highly refined carb and not an optimal choice. The research on artificial sweeteners is still inconclusive but not encouraging, so I avoid them when possible. In general, whole plants are better for us than any of these.

However, it’s pretty tricky to stick entirely to whole plants, so I do often use products which are not intact whole plants, but which I consider better choices. Substitutes I use on a regular basis include: raw honey, pea protein powder, whey protein powder, pasta made from beans or legumes, tofu, tempeh and seitan (processed plant protein products), almond flour (for breading fish), and Scandinavian wholegrain crackers: these Wasa brand sourdough crackers are my favorites, with 2 grams of fiber for every 9 grams of total carbohydrate! Other choices that I think are not optimal, but better, include cauliflower crust for pizza, breads made with true whole grains such as Ezekiel and Dave’s (check the Fiber Rule!), and fresh sourdough bread from a bakery.

I hope I’ve given you some useful ideas about how to increase foods that come from plant sources.

Would you like a free printable PDF summary of the super-simple substitutes I’ve found for processed starchy and sugary foods? Glad you asked! I’m creating a series of these, and the first one, “Easy, Healthy Substitutions for Breadstuffs”‚ is available now! You can download it here, and you’ll also receive my twice-monthly “Jetpack” newsletter (of course you can unsubscribe anytime), which will alert you to get the rest of the series when they’re ready: Must Have Crunch! Substitutions for crunchy starchy things and Tame the Sugar Monster: Substitutions for sweet treats.

I love the beautiful layout and graphics of my PDFs and the illustrations for this blog post by the talented Jan Ziegler; I hope you do too!

Finally, could you use a little mutual brainstorming about how to swap out “breadstuffs” and other starchy or sugary foods and add more easy, tasty, healthy vegetables that you’ll love? Jump on Zoom with me here at your convenience for free, and let’s make a plan together in just 45 minutes! Your future self will thank you!

And I thank you for reading this! I hope the summer is starting out well for you, and I hope to see you sometime soon in a Zoom call or one of my free online events! Take care and keep eating whole plants!

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