Reversing metabolic syndrome requires a reduction in refined carbohydrate and sometimes even temporary avoidance of whole food starches. Many families gravitate toward products and recipes that include alternative flours like almond or coconut flour. The question is: are they a healthy swap? 

If you’ve had a visit with me, you’ve heard me say (er, preach?) “Fill up on sources of protein, healthy fat, and fiber at every meal and snack.” This piece of advice, along with “eat real food” are the two most important things you can do for reversing metabolic syndrome. Let’s explore this question about alternative flours with that in mind.

Almond Flour

Almond flour or almond meal is simply ground up almonds. The almonds can be either:

  • unblanched – the thin brown skin on the nut is left intact before the nut is ground, or 
  • blanched – the thin brown skin on the nut is removed before the nut is ground. 

Almonds are a nut, and nuts are more complex than grains like wheat. The composition of nuts is largely healthy fat with a fair amount of both protein and fiber. White flour, on the other hand, is largely starch (long chains of glucose) with very little fiber. That combination—high starch, low fiber—makes the glucose in white flour highly available to your body. That’s actually a bad thing! Highly available starch is broken down into glucose rapidly. Without the presence of much fiber, glucose is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. Your blood glucose rises rapidly, insulin spikes quickly and dramatically, and it is that insulin response that perpetuates all features of metabolic syndrome. Our goal is to minimize the insulin response after eating, so yes, if you are going to have a piece of bread, choosing one made from almond flour would be less harmful.

Coconut Flour

Coconuts are fruits. They too have a better nutrient composition than grains. They are predominantly fat (healthy fat!), high in fiber, and also contain some protein.

Chickpea or Garbanzo Bean Flour

The chickpea or garbanzo bean is, well, a bean. Beans are higher in protein and fiber, which makes the starch they contain much safer for us. 

Ultimately, my opinion is that almond, coconut, and chickpea flours are fine to use, so long as they aren’t abused. “Abuse” of these flours would look like:

  • 1) Overusing them. Avoid having flour-based foods at every meal, even if the flour is almond, coconut, or chickpea. Why? See my next point.
  • 2) Allowing these baked goods to displace sources of what you truly need: whole food sources of protein, healthy fat, and fiber. If having a bread made from these flours, for example, it should comprise 1/4 of the meal or less leaving room for better sources of protein, healthy fat, and fiber in the meal. 

Many people will use an alternative flour-based item as the main component or only component of the meal, which I don’t recommend. An example of this would be a breakfast of pancakes made from almond, coconut, and/or chickpea flour. The entire meal is still a flour-based food. You aren’t including any intact source of protein, healthy fat, and fiber, so the meal is imbalanced. Plus, you’re probably going to add a sweet topping on those pancakes, like syrup.

  • 3) Sweetening baked goods made with these flours with either caloric or non-caloric sweeteners. Just because these flours have a better composition than wheat flour does not mean we endorse sweet breads made from them with any regularity.

Yam or Sweet Potato Flour

Yams and sweet potatoes are healthful whole foods and foods that I would recommend over bread or pasta any day. However, I don’t recommend noodles made from them.

From the perspective of metabolic health, I put white potatoes in the same category as refined grains. Products made from sweet potato or yam flour are only marginally better than those made from white potato or refined grains, perhaps on par with “whole wheat” bread, which is hardly any improvement at all. The difference between these and almond-, coconut-, or chickpea-based things is that the yam is a starch (mostly glucose, little fiber) whereas almonds, coconuts, and beans are more complex, nutrient-dense, and higher-fiber foods.

Hearts of Palm Products 

Hearts of palm is a vegetable cut from the core of certain palm trees. It is naturally low in carbohydrate and high in fiber and is being used as a noodle or rice replacement.  

This Palmini product emphasizes they use sliced hearts of palm. Considering this is simply a sliced vegetable, it is a better option than a flour-based noodle or white rice. Although, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it “real food,” because I don’t cook with citric acid in my kitchen! It is a food product, albeit a minimally processed one.  

Tofu Shirataki

Tofu shirataki is a noodle made from tofu and yam. It is venturing into the “edible food-like substance” category, and it has yam in it, so it should probably be avoided.

Ingredients in House Foods Tofu Shirataki Spaghetti: water, soybeans, yam flour, calcium hydroxide, glucose delta lactone, calcium sulfate. Do you cook with these ingredients in your home? I don’t.  

I understand the need for some bread, pasta, or crackers once in a while, but my frustration with the root of this question is that everyone wants to hack their health. We still need to be choosing REAL FOOD, not products, first and foremost. And probably 99% of people need to eat more vegetables—real, intact, non-starchy vegetables. 

So, what should you have in place of bread, pasta, or rice most of the time? VEGETABLES. Make them taste good. Cook them with healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter. Season them well. Don’t overcook them into mush. Add extra healthy fats at the table, like a drizzle of olive oil-based salad dressing, a pat of butter, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, pesto, or a yogurt- or nut butter-based sauce. Vegetables are truly the way to hack your health!

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