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No Carbs, Now What?

Cutting carbohydrates out of meals is a current nutritional trend that has gained mainstream acceptance. As such, hoteliers would benefit by appealing to adherents to this dietary choice through healthier menu options that are ‘carbless’. However, it may be quite difficult to adopt this trend as carbs are deeply ingrained in our culinary and cultural heritage. In particular, carbs are often essential to delivering meal satiety, which is a heavy factor for meal satisfaction. Without carbs on the plate, it thus becomes harder to satisfy your average restaurant patron. I offer a few creative solutions to help navigate you through this gastronomic change.

Carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice, risotto, corn, cereal, crackers, potatoes. They’ve nourished us for millennia, allowing civilizations to swell to unnaturally large numbers. Now, a nutritional trend reaching mainstream appeal stands to redact their gloriously supportive reputation. Followers of the latest chic diets widely classify carbs as ‘the enemy’, demonizing them for their starchy fat-promoting content, their ability to raise blood pressure and their respectively low nutrient-to-sugar ratio.

If you’ve ever dabbled in contemporary literature on the subject, then you know that there’s a lot the average person doesn’t know in terms of how various foodstuffs affect such everyday and far-reaching worries as colds, weight loss, allergies, hearth health, cancer prevention, mood stability and skin repair. With preventable pathologies like obesity, diabetes and arthrosclerosis on the rise (at least in Western cultures), now is the time to fight back with the meal choices we make. Food thought leaders purport that ‘cutting the carbs’ may be the panacea we so desperately seek, and many are firm believers.

To me, it appears as though we are on the precipices of a modern day ‘food revolution’, with many of the agrarian influences of the past century – which at the time were necessary for our sustained population growth and the deterrence of famine – now evidenced as unswervingly hazardous to our wellbeing. Three books I’ve read which have been fairly epiphanous include “The China Study” (2005), “Anticancer” (2009) and “Wheat Belly” (2011). Mind you, carbs aren’t universally panned, but they are increasingly getting the brunt of the scorn, especially what we know deem as ‘refined’ or heavily processed carbohydrates.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance sufferers as well as those making a lifestyle choice (the Paleo Diet for example) are now a fairly prevalent bunch – certainly a non-negligible audience and one who’s more choosy about where they dine. If you want to build an empathetic image for your restaurant and also attract this growing cluster of patrons, your menu may need a few adjustments, particularly in the ‘carbless’ and low sugar department. However, while ostracizing carbs from your restaurant’s menu may be met with applause and appreciation from your wheat-allergic and weight-watching consumers, there’s a grave corollary that’s being overlooked.

Meal appreciation does not necessarily equal satisfaction. That is, people may appreciate or respect the fact that you’ve embraced this popular trend, or others like vegetarianism, but does that equate to venerable word of mouth and return visits? Aside from flavor, presentation and customer service, a significant portion of food satisfaction comes from satiety, a cuisine trait largely dependent on the bulk. And nothing delivers bulk better than carbs. If a meal doesn’t fill you up, you are less emotionally inclined to give it a stellar review or, ultimately, a recommendation.

Another problem with going ‘sans carb’ with your cuisine is that carbohydrates are traditionally the lowest-cost-highest-profit food purchase. There’s a reason why you can supersize your fries and drink but not your burger. Sure, to achieve satiety and a higher degree of emotional satisfaction you could load up a patron’s plate with extra meat or veggies, but then where’s the profit? Ergo, the big problem I pose today is: how are you going to leave your guests happily satiated without the carbs and without sacrificing your revenue margins?

What’s Gluten? Why Care?

Before we delve any further, some clarification is in order. Dovetailing the ‘no carb’ movements is a hearty campaign for ‘gluten free’ menus led by those with serious allergies. Gluten isn’t a carb; it’s a protein naturally found in grass-borne grains (wheat, barley, rye and so on). It’s what allows dough to rise into a puffy, delectable shape (alongside yeast), and it’s also employed as a stabilizing reagent for other colloids like ice cream. Furthermore, extra doses of gluten are often mixed back into dough or other base grains for additional chewiness upon baking.

Given this molecule’s origins, it’s not hard to imagine why these two trends are practically interchangeable. When we talk about ‘carbless’ cooking, gluten-free is very often also implied. However, unlike simply replacing the carbohydrates in any given dish as part of a lifestyle choice, upholding gluten-free meal preparation is vital for those with allergies or sensitivities to this protein.

So, why care about gluten? With acute side effects including bloating, cramping, fatigue and diarrhea, the gluten-intolerant folk are ardent in both their search for sympathetic establishments and their avoidance of noncompliant operators. Given that estimates place the spectrum of gluten sensitivities, wheat allergies and celiac disease sufferers as affecting upwards of 1% of the US population, this is relatively small, but nonetheless important demographic.

Being inclusive by appeasing this minority becomes all the more crucial when we’re talking groups business and catering. If your menu excludes these one-percenters outright, be prepared for parties to silently take their sustenance needs elsewhere in order to accommodate one or more gluten sensitive members.

Personal Experiences

My inspiration for writing this article initially stemmed from my own trials and errors in the land of no carbs. As someone who has become very active in watching my diet over the past few years, refined sugars and carbohydrates were the first to go. Barring exceptions (which are still quite frequent because my wife is a tremendous baker!), this means no rice, noodles, bread, flour, pasta, pastries, potatoes, corn, couscous and everything derived from said products (beer, crackers, cookies, chips and so on). Tough life, huh?

I’ll say this – and I’m sure many who’ve gone along a similar path will concur – cutting the carbs is hard. Menus become minefields with plenty of untouchables and waiter-eye-rolling ingredient substitutions. For the first few transitional weeks, I was getting sugar headaches, carb cravings, lethargy spells and rumbling stomach pangs, all of which altered my emotional state and not necessarily for the better. Although these irritable feelings dissipated, for a dieting neophyte they are still quite irksome.

Results don’t lie though. Without upping my exercise regimens, in the months that followed this experiment, I’d dropped ten pounds, lost a few inches across the waist and my annual physical churned out healthier blood pressure readings as well as a slightly lower heart rate. Additionally, once I was over the initial hump, there were no more cravings and no more fatigue.

Throughout this grand endeavor, I went on a research binge for carb alternatives to supplement my diet with high nutrient stomach-fillers and perhaps alleviate some of the harsher side effects during the gradual purge. My goal was to find cheap substitutes that wouldn’t elicit the same insulin spiking effects as the more pedestrian carbohydrates (that is, digested sugars trigger insulin release which in turn causes fat production and weight gain).

Broad Solutions to Consider

Without too much boasting, my findings are enough to fill a 300-page book. Overall, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some very worthy ‘carbless’ candidates for you and your F&B team to consider. What follows is more a general discussion of ways to keep your patrons full in a no carb world with some broad tips to apply. I don’t want to delve into individual recipes and ingredients; I’ll leave that up to the ingenuity of your chefs.

Definitely not on this list were fish, meat, poultry or anything else from the animal kingdom. From a purely volume perspective, attempting to deliver the same satiety (and emotional fulfillment) that a meal with carbohydrates gives by including larger portions of your main is just not practical. It costs too much. Just look at the pricing models for steakhouses to see how they compensate for gargantuan mains – not everyone can get away with these chunky charges!

True, this is only a suggestion. If you feel as though offering a bulkier slice of your main dish will help keep the consumers coming back, then by all means go for it. Just know that your margins might suffer, which may cause fiscal problems later on down the road. The lone, ubiquitous exception to this conclusion was eggs. They are relatively inexpensive and universally applicable to your cooking needs.

One of the most salient restaurateur answers worth addressing is to include both a regular and a gluten-free menu. While this might alleviate some concerns (and it’s certainly a stepping stone solution I recommend), it’s becoming increasingly transparent that special cooking methods must be adopted in order to properly isolate gluten contaminants, similar to what already exists for kosher, halal and vegan preparations. Hence, an all-or-nothing response in the kitchen is what’s truly needed; either you are holistically gluten free or you’re not.

Next to consider are seeds. Seeds (chia, amaranth, quinoa, flax and so on) are technically in the carbohydrate family, but they have a much higher nutrient-to-sugar ratio as well as more protein. This not only makes them better for you gram-to-gram, but because of their complex spectrum of fibers, they are harder for your digestive system to breakdown into simple sugars, meaning that they don’t produce as heavy an insulin spike as other more basic carbs (that is, they’re lower on the glycemic index).

Legumes present another vegetarian opportunity to placate the body’s hunger and calorie needs. They’re cheap, they come in dozens of colorful varieties and many pedigrees have prodigious antioxidant levels. I’m sure any professional chef knows how to properly prepare a bean medley salad or baked beans. Just be sure to account for potential allergies (peanuts are a legume by the way, not a nut).

While on the topic of nuts, they too are extremely filling and loaded with good calories. Think cashew stir fries and infusing almonds or pine nuts in mixed steamed veggies. Crushed nuts can also be effortlessly blended into seed-based salads and they can be used as a batter substitute for coating fish or meats. Opportunities abound, but so do allergies; proceed with caution.

Then, of course, there is the vegetable realm for you to explore. Many types of cabbage (I’m fond of red) are volumetrically filling as well as monetarily feasible. Green salads don’t have to have a base of arugula, radicchio or spinach; consider rainbow chard, watercress or kale. As well, look to the big blue ocean for solutions, namely seaweed. Although not technically a vegetable in the strictest sense, seaweed and kelp are nonetheless packed with vitamins, minerals and other forms of nutritional goodness.

For more background information, I highly recommend you take a cursory look at such in vogue cuisine approaches like the Paleo Diet or the Slow Carb Diet as well as older iterations like the South Beach Diet, Dr. Atkins’s nutritional protocols and the Grapefruit Diet. Also, veganism, vegetarianism and raw foodism offer three great sources for inspiration as well as recipes that exclude animal products or, in the case of a raw diet, cooking itself.

The Bread Basket

Another touch point worth discussing is the bread basket – that loaf of fresh dough (with butter and olive oil) to whet the palate while picking your appetizers or mains. In many restaurants, this basket is a subtle but essential part of the overall dining experience as well as the first chance after your guests take their seats to boost the satiety-satisfaction dynamic. Yes, bread is perhaps the cheapest foodstuff you could offer a patron at this early juncture, but you should start to think of some slightly more expensive alternatives so that your carb-abstaining guests aren’t completely alienated when you plunk down that sliced baguette.

Again, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Olives drizzled in oil, herbs and spice? Not everyone is a fan of this Mediterranean fruit’s salty bite. Then how about cherry tomatoes sprinkled with oil? I know many people who don’t like uncooked tomatoes – something about the skin texture. A bowl of mixed nuts perhaps? Allergies. Three or four different cheeses? Dairy qualms, and it’s not vegan. A tray of fresh fruit? Good luck keeping your margins with that.

All these objections can make the process of choosing a ‘bread successor’ quite nauseating. Just know that you will never fully appeal to everyone (much like other aspects of your hotel!). However, good hearted amuse bouche gestures like this won’t fall on deaf ears. Frankly, I’d go the less conservative route and use this as a chance to give your guests something to talk about. Edge towards the wild. Surprise visitors with a simple yet elegant food solution which is impossible for them not to remember. Perhaps the bread successor may be a one-bite portion of an appetizer the executive chef is considering adding to the menu. You serve it, then you return and ask your patrons what they thought – rapport at its finest.

Ingredient Quality

One last consideration is the quality of your ingredients. From a physiological perspective, a sated person results from both volume (stomach expanding to meet incoming bolus of food) as well as nutrient concentration. When certain nutrients interact with the intestinal lining, they cause the release of gastronomic hormones which signal the feeling of satiety. Carbs have a propensity to be low in nutrient and vitamin concentration, so you end up eating more than you have to because it takes longer for the corresponding hormones to be activated. Fruits and veggies are quite the opposite, meaning that they’ll give you the sensation of being full with less overall food consumed.

High quality, organic foodstuffs tend to have greater quantities of nutrients and vitamins relative to the same items grown under less meticulous conditions. For example, you will feel more stuffed from an omelet made from three organic free range eggs than one whipped up using three regular store-bought eggs of equal mass. Whether one can decipher an actual taste discrepancy between non-organic and organic foods is in the eye of beholder. What this means for you is that if you ensure that you source from the best (which might often be a local producer to concurrently fill the ‘fresh to table’ trend), you are thereby increasing the nutrient concentration in your cuisine and more adequately satiating your patrons on less overall food.

The Bottom Line

In the end, you should not neglect the notion of dining satisfaction as a function of satiety. Where curbing the carbs on your menu might present itself as a problem, much like my bread basket ruminations I want you to think of it as an opportunity to revamp your entire menu for the better. It all boils down to whether you believe it to be a worthwhile investment to ‘stay with the times’ in addition to the ingenuity of your team to translate such carbless passions into some novel tasty treats with vibrant presentation.

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotels Executive August 19, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyNo Carbs, Now What?