Sandwiches are a go-to lunch option for good reason: They’re easy to assemble, portable, filling, and offer plenty of variety. The challenge: many traditional bread-based sandwiches are carb-heavy and full of unwanted additives from processed fillings. The problem is what they’re packaged in.
Two slices of white bread contain 27 grams of carbohydrates. When the body breaks down this substantial load of quick-digesting carbs from refined grains, blood glucose tends to rise quickly. (Here’s why that can have a negative impact on your health.) Even whole-grain breads are high in carbohydrates and made with processed wheat flours, which are likely to spike blood sugar.
“Skip traditional bread while leaning on healthy fillings to create a combination that’s less likely to spike your blood sugar and better for metabolic health.”
But bread is not the only vehicle for a handheld meal, and most popular sandwich fillings are glucose-friendly (with just a few exceptions noted below). Apply some creative construction using quality ingredients, and suddenly the sandwich is an ideal meal.
Read on for advice on building a better sandwich, plus 10 recipe ideas that are lower in carbohydrates and full of nutrient-rich foods important for metabolic health.
How to Build a Better Sandwich
The basic formula is simple: Skip traditional bread while leaning on healthy fillings to create a combination that’s less likely to spike your blood sugar and better for metabolic health. It’s important to know, however, that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Foods that raise one person’s blood sugar may not cause glucose spikes in others. Here are some options to find what works best for you.
Double down on vegetables. The best bread alternatives are found in the produce aisle. Compared to breads and wraps made with alternative flours, vegetables are lower in carbohydrates and deliver more beneficial fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Romaine lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard, lacinato kale, and cabbage all make excellent containers for sandwiches and wraps. Other vegetables like portabella mushrooms and bell peppers can also be used, as illustrated by the preparations outlined below.
Explore bread alternatives. Wraps made with flour alternatives, such as almond, coconut, or cassava flour, are better options than those made with wheat flour, as they’re lower in carbohydrates and don’t contain refined grains. But they may still spike some. For example, Siete brand wraps contain 20 to 34 grams of carbs per serving. If you want to build a more traditional stack, Outer Aisle Cauliflower Sandwich Thins are an excellent choice with 3 grams of carbs, 9 grams of protein, and 2 servings of vegetables per two-piece serving.
Avoid ultra-processed meats and cheeses. Heavily processed foods often include synthetic ingredients that can disrupt your gut microbiome, reduce insulin sensitivity, and set the stage for oxidative stress. Deli meat is typically processed with additives to improve shelf-life, color, and flavor. And American cheese isn’t natural cheese made directly from milk, like cheddar or mozzarella; it’s a “pasteurized cheese product” created by mixing parts of real cheese with emulsifiers and preservatives, and seasoning. When shopping for meats and cheeses, choose organic, grass-fed, or pasture-raised options when possible. It’s also wise to check the labels for additives.
Get creative with vegetable fillings. Use vegetables in different forms to add more nutrients and antioxidants to your sandwich. Try shredded carrots and broccoli as a slaw. Substitute roasted mushrooms or broccoli in place of meat. Add chopped spinach or kale to chicken or tuna salad. Give your sandwich a tangy twist and a boost of probiotics to support gut health with fermented sauerkraut.
Pick the proper pickles. Sweet bread and butter pickles contain 1.4 grams of sugar per chip. Cover your sandwich with them, and that adds up quickly. Choose dill pickles instead to avoid added sugars.
Watch out for added sugars and refined oils in condiments. Mayonnaise is often made with soybean oil and canola oil. These oils can be inflammatory because they contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, says Jennifer Iserloh, chef, integrative health coach, and author of The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook. Instead, she suggests using mayonnaise made with avocado oil, such as ones from Primal Kitchen and Sir Kensington’s. Like olive oil, avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which can improve insulin sensitivity, promote heart health, decrease inflammation, and aid in weight management. Store-bought salad dressings also often contain refined oils and added sugars. When it comes to mustard, stick with traditional yellow or dijon. Honey mustard contains 1 gram of sugar per teaspoon.
10 Sandwich Alternative Recipes
The sandwich recipes below can help support metabolic health without sacrificing flavor.
This simple wrap features turkey, mayonnaise, onion, and cucumbers wrapped in blanched collard greens. Collard greens are substantial in size and sturdy enough that they won’t tear when folded around ingredients. A quick blanch tenderizes the leaves, so they’re softer to chew. Use this formula as inspiration for different combinations of organic meats, fresh veggies, and condiments.
Nori is a dried form of edible seaweed rich in iodine, magnesium, and zinc. The 5 oz can of tuna in this recipe packs 27 grams of filling protein. For the highest quality fish, consider wild-caught rather than conventional farmed tuna. To avoid added sugar, opt for Trader Joe’s spicy cashew butter dressing in place of sriracha.
If you don’t have time to make your own low-carb ciabatta bread as this recipe outlines, try cauliflower sandwich thins. Tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella melt together in a classic Italian flavor combination. Drizzle balsamic vinegar onto the tomatoes and cheese before toasting for added blood sugar benefit. Evidence shows vinegar may help blunt a glucose spike.
The “slices of bread” in this sandwich swap are two portabella mushrooms, low in carbs, low in calories, and unlikely to cause a spike. Roast the portabella caps along with zucchini, tomatoes, and red onion for a satisfying veggie stack.
Eggs are a great source of protein, cholesterol, and micronutrients beneficial for metabolic health. Opt for pasture-raised eggs and avocado oil-based mayo for this egg salad recipe flavored with turmeric, a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. (Chronic inflammation goes hand in hand with metabolic issues and disease risk.) The avocado it’s served on is also low in carbs, high in fiber, and rich in monounsaturated fats.
Red bell peppers are brimming with fiber and antioxidants in the form of vitamin C. Gather together organic turkey breast, spinach, and avocado, then enclose it all within crunchy pepper halves. Get creative and swap in other minimally processed meats or deli-style egg, tuna, or chicken salad.
The pesto in this chicken salad recipe incorporates 3 cups of spinach and 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, which contain high levels of protein, magnesium, iron, and vitamin E. One suggestion: Switch out the corn tortilla for leafy greens or a wrap made with almond flour.
This low-carb version of a lunchtime classic uses a 90-second keto bread made with egg, cheese, and almond flour. Tuna adds lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Top it off with real cheddar cheese for flavor, creaminess, and a dose of calcium. Tip: Grate your own cheese instead of buying it pre-shredded to avoid unnecessary additives.
This BLT wrap uses crisp lettuce, such as romaine, butter, or iceberg. For the bacon, check the label for sugar, corn syrup, and artificial flavors. Opt for a brand like Applegate Organics that is free of sugar and artificial ingredients (and limit the number of slices if you are concerned about nitrates).
Use sliced meat as a wrap for nutritious veggies like bell peppers, olives, and shredded lettuce. Roll it up with or without cheese—it’s up to you. The secret sauce in this recipe: homemade tzatziki with a Greek yogurt base. Alternatively, you could blend avocado to achieve a similar creamy effect.