How to Cut Carbs on a Plant-Based Diet: Yes, It’s Possible
Is it possible to go low-carb on a plant-based diet? Eating fewer carbs is indeed harder when you're plant-based since when you first give up animal products, there's a tendency to pile on processed foods and carbs and fill up on pasta, rice, cereal and crackers or chips. “People tend to go overboard on the carbs when they go vegetarian, plant-based, or even flexitarian,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It. It’s easy to fill up on our favorite food group. Here’s how to avoid the carb trap, and stay fit, healthy and lean on a plant-based diet.
Why do people tend to overeat carbs on a plant-based diet?
One of the reasons plant-based dieters are likely to overdo the carbs is that they’re really easy to make, find, and eat, says Taub-Dix. “Especially for people who are on the go. Muffins, crackers, bread or rolls are the kind of the foods that you reach for, because they're so easy, portable, and their prep is basically nonexistent.”
In some cases, the economic ease of eating carbs is a factor. A carb-heavy snack like pretzels is less expensive than nuts, or another plant-based snack. Of course seeds and nuts or a piece of fruit (even though it has carbs is full of fiber) would be a better choice.
“One of the main reasons we all love carbs is that they are the king of comfort,” says Taub-Dix. “When you eat carbohydrates, especially carbohydrates that are pure, like a piece of whole-grain toast, the carbohydrates get absorbed and stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, which provides comfort feelings.” That’s why you’re more likely to reach for a carb snack when you’re feeling stressed, rather than carrots and hummus. Your body is wired to crave carbs for that serotonin release that will improve your mood.
Six strategies to cut carbs on a plant-based diet
1. Set a daily carb range and follow it
When you first decide to reduce carbs from your plant-based diet, assess how many grams you’re eating daily so you know how much you need to dial it back. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that 45 to 65 percent of your diet should be carbohydrates (about 225 to 325 grams per day). That’s if you’re following a 2,000-calorie diet, which is often used as an example. If you're eating less than 2,000 calories, dial it down accordingly.
“Not everyone needs a 2,000-calorie diet,” says Taub-Dix. “And for some people, 325 grams is a lot of carbs each day and not necessary.” If you’re trying to lose weight, experiment within the lower end of the range. Download an app that will help you track carb counts to find a range you feel satisfied with while creating balanced meals. We like MyFitnessPal, Carb Manager, Senza, and Macros to name a few.
2. Fill up on Natural Sources of Carbs, and Eat as Much Fiber as You Can
Remember that carbs aren’t just grains, potatoes, pasta, and rice. Sources of naturally occurring carbs include fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Choose carbs that are high in fiber, unprocessed, and filling, like carrots, broccoli, artichokes, and beets.
The most important thing to calculate when choosing carbs is "net carbs" which are the carbs absorbed by the body. To calculate your net carbs, subtract the fiber in your food from your carbs. That is the number of carbs that your body uses as fuel, or if you don't use them (walking, running, commuting or just sitting at your desk) those carbs are the ones slated to be stored as fat.
To calculate net carbs in processed foods, subtract the fiber and a portion of the sugar alcohol on the label (which also does not get absorbed the same way as carbs) from the total carbohydrates listed. In general, most processed food is lower in fiber than natural whole foods, so if you're eating carbs, eat complex carbs in the form of grains, vegetables, and fruits.
3. Try a Plant-Based Delivery Service
Some plant-based meal delivery services allow you to choose meals that are lower in carbs, when you sign in and choose the menu choices, such as Purple Carrot’s Spaghetti Bolognese with zucchini noodles and ground “beef” crumbles or one of Thrive Foods Direct’s meals. Learn to cook this way as you go: Those zoodles have fewer net carbs than regular pasta because the fiber content in the zucchini counts in your favor.
4. Trim Your Carb Portions Throughout the Day
Cutting down on your carbs without feeling like you’re eliminating them altogether is the key to success. Just by slicing your current carbohydrate consumption in half and doubling up on vegetables, you'll add the necessary fiber to lower the carb impact on your body.
For breakfast, cook 1/3-cup of dry oats with low-carb fruits, like blueberries, to round out your meal and give you slow-burning energy to start your day.
Make your lunch sandwich open-faced and choose a bread that has at least 3 grams of fiber per slice. Portion out a ½-cup of brown rice at dinner since brown rice has more than four times the fiber of white rice.
5. Add Low-Carb, High-Fiber Vegetables to Every Meal
You’re patting yourself on the back for following a plant-based diet, but if most of your veggie intake is potatoes, corn, and peas, you could be making smarter choices. Pile your plate with leafy greens, peppers, zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, and green beans. Lose the starchy vegetables (potatoes) and instead opt for cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts. Choose avocadoes and berries as low-carb fruits instead of bananas which have 27 grams of carbs each.
6. Add healthy fats
In order for you to feel satisfied and full while reducing carbs, you may want to increase the amount of fat and plant protein you’re eating. A study published in The Lancet found that study subjects who ate low-carb diets and replaced their calories with calories from animal-derived fat had a higher mortality rate. Those who replaced the calories with plant-based fats had a lower mortality rate.
To quote the study:
"Low carbohydrate dietary patterns favoring animal-derived protein and fat sources from sources such as lamb, beef, pork, and chicken, were associated with higher mortality, whereas those that favored plant-derived protein and fat intake, from sources such as vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, and whole-grain bread, were associated with lower mortality, suggesting that the source of food notably modifies the association between carbohydrate intake and mortality."
So the bottom line is: choose carbs that have high fiber content. And round out your diet with low-carb sources like nuts, seeds, tofu, nut oils, nut butter, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.