The Low-Carb Diet Makeover

Low-carb diets are ever-popular because they tend to work, but do they have to be so extreme? YAM presents low-carb diet ideas you can actually live with.

By Cinda Chavich

Cauliflower Mushroom Risotto. PHOTOGRAPH: JEFFREY BOSDET Napkin and Japanese ceramic plate courtesy of Lore General; matte gold spoon courtesy of Tuscan Kitchen. (Scroll to bottom of page for the recipe).

With a new year upon us — and the season of indulgence but a guilty memory — I’m again contemplating a shift to a new, healthier diet.

There are many diet protocols trending these days, from vegetarian and vegan to paleo and hard-core keto, but the idea that keeps coming back is simply cutting out carbohydrates, especially refined flours and sugar.

The low-carb diet is nothing new, but it’s finding new acolytes. Local pharmacies are promoting low-carb programs, and my GP recently suggested cutting carbs — an indication that the idea is more mainstream than ever.

There are many systems and low-carb gurus to follow, whether you choose the original Atkins Diet, the caveman Paleo progam, Low Carb/High Fat (LCHF) or the Bulletproof regimen with its optional proprietary products to buy. But all start with the basic premise that consuming high levels of refined carbohydrates (sugary, starchy foods like sweets, desserts, pop, pasta, noodles, potatoes, flour, fruit juices and bread) is at an all-time high, and that reducing or eliminating these foods from your diet can lead to better health.

Eating high-fibre whole foods that contain carbohydrates — including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes — are linked to improved health and lower risk of disease, so it pays to choose carbohydrates wisely.

So how many carbs should we consume?

Well, to kick-start a true keto weight-loss diet, the number is extremely restrictive — just 20 to 30 grams of net carbohydrates (about 50 grams total carbs) per day in the initial ‘induction’ phase to reach that ketosis stage in which your body uses its fat for fuel. (The net carb number is total carbs minus fibre.)

Still, even cutting back to 50 or 100 grams of carbohydrates per day can have health benefits — improving blood pressure, blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels and weight loss.

But with so many of our go-to meals based on carbohydrates these days, making the switch is not easy. Though I’ve always cooked from scratch with lots of healthy meats, fish and vegetables, as the low-carb protocol dictates, many of my everyday recipes rely on a starch — pasta, rice, noodles, potatoes, beans, bread — as a base for everything from soups and sauces to curries, stir-fries, savoury bread puddings and panini sandwiches.

A Sensible Approach

After years of cutting the fat, only to replace the filling bulk of those calories with carbohydrates, many people are seeking a sea change in the kitchen. In contrast to more extreme forms of the low-carb diets, the LCHF diet relies on protein and fat to fill you up, and that means cooking in a whole new way.

Vancouver chef and food writer Karen Barnaby is a low-carb veteran. She wrote The Low-Carb Gourmet (Harper Collins), teaches low-carb cooking classes and has shared her recipes and advice at

When Barnaby cut the sugar, gluten and carbohydrates from her diet, she lost 70 pounds and instantly cured her aching joints and stuffy head. And though, in the beginning, she created recipes using sugar substitutes like Splenda and Canadian SugarTwin, her advice today is to simply choose whole foods without carbohydrates.

“I don’t look to replace foods,” she says. “I can’t eat bread; therefore, I cannot eat bread.”

Still, she has found ways to incorporate her favourite flavours into new low-carb dishes — spaghetti squash or cauliflower carbonara with prosciutto, Parmesan and cream or Meatza (her burger-based pizza pie topped with tomato sauce, mushrooms, peppers, black olives and cheese), accompanied by a fresh tomato and basil salad.

Vegetables and salads have become her focus. As a product development chef for produce wholesaler Fresh Start Foods, she adds squash and rutabaga ‘noodles’ to Asian coconut curry bowls or uses them to make quick ‘pickles’ and crunchy slaw-style salads.

Though you can replace sugar in some recipes with carb-free sweeteners like Splenda, she says it can be a slippery slope if you’re addicted to sweets. Better to eliminate sweets altogether, Barnaby says, and rely on lower-carb fruits like berries, apricots and plums to quell your sweet tooth. Though distilled spirits and dry wines are considered low-carb, she says it’s safer to drink lots of water to avoid “eating indiscretions.”

And remember, even if you can’t stick to the ultra-low-carb ketogenic regimen, cutting sugar and starchy foods from your diet will be good for your health. Some invoke the 80/20 rule: low-carb 80 per cent of the time, with the rest less restricted. Or you could follow the example of Queen Elizabeth who, at 92 years young, has a biscuit with her tea and a gin cocktail every day, but never starch on the plate for lunch.

RECIPE: Cauliflower Mushroom Risotto

• 1 small (2 lb) head of cauliflower,
cut into large florets*

• 2 tbsp olive oil, divided

• 1 lb white or brown mushrooms, sliced

• 1 small onion, finely chopped

• 1 large garlic clove, minced

• 1/4 cup chicken broth

• 1/4 cup white wine

• 1/2 tsp salt

• Freshly ground black pepper,
to taste

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

• 2 tbsp whipping cream

• 2 tbsp finely chopped Italian

Use the food processor to make the cauliflower rice — just add the florets to the processor and pulse until you have a coarse rice texture. You may need to do this in 3 or 4 batches. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.

Heat a large, nonstick pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook quickly until nicely browned, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

Return the pan to medium heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sauté the onion and garlic until beginning to brown, or about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked mushrooms, cauliflower ‘rice,’ broth, white wine, salt and pepper to the pan. Stir over medium heat for a few minutes, then cover for 2 minutes to steam.

Stir in the Parmesan cheese, cream and parsley.

Makes 6 servings. 8.5 g carbohydrates per serving.