Your Complete Guide to Carbohydrates on a Plant-Based Diet
Carbs. That dreaded four-letter word that you may fear nowadays. You may automatically be associating eating ‘carbs’ with unhealthy eating. However, this isn’t necessarily true.
Let me break down carbohydrates for you and help you answer the question: "Are carbs bad for me?" This is the most asked question I hear, as a registered dietician. I will also answer: "Do you need to follow a high-protein low-carb vegetarian diet to achieve weight loss?" As well as, "How many carbs are too many?" And, "What are the best sources of carbs on a plant-based diet?" This complete guide will answer all your questions.
Are Carbs Bad For You?
This is the most often asked question I hear. However, the idea of carbs being bad for you is an oversimplification. Carbohydrates are your body’s (and your brain's) primary fuel source. Carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits and vegetables also come with a number of essential nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals, that your body needs to thrive.
So, whole-food carbohydrates are essential for good health. However, it’s the quality of the carbohydrate that matters, especially when it comes to whether carbs make you gain weight. Carbohydrates that are processed and refined (such as white bread, pasta or chips, crackers, and store-bought cookies made with white flour) have a high glycemic index – meaning that they break down quickly and spike your blood sugar. A diet full of simple carbs and high glycemic foods causes can cause inflammation, increasing your risk of conditions such as heart disease and contributing to weight gain.
Can You Eat too Many Carbs on a Plant-Based Diet?
Yes, it is possible to over-eat carbs on a plant-based diet or any diet for that matter. However, this is much more likely to happen when you are eating carbohydrates that are not satisfying and filling (ie refined carbohydrates made with processed flour and added sugar). It’s easier to overeat candy than it is chickpeas! Candy doesn’t contain the fiber or vital micronutrients that chickpeas have, therefore you digest candy for energy faster than you would chickpeas. When blood sugar spikes it causes insulin to surge, which in turn works to get the unused calories into the cells and out of the bloodstream. If your muscles and body can't use the fuel it gets stored as fat.
The key to healthy carb management is choosing the right carbs, such as natural whole foods like fruit and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and also knowing exactly many carbohydrates you actually need to eat per day to fuel your healthy, active body.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 45 to 65 percent of your total calories come from carbohydrates – which is about 225 to 325 grams per day on a 2,000 calorie diet. However, not everyone needs to eat 2,000 calories a day, and if you are looking to lose weight, you are likely to need fewer calories than that.
Not everyone needs to eat 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbs. If you are looking to eat lower carbohydrates, you may want to consider one of the following carbohydrate ranges:
- 100-150 grams: This carbohydrate range is easier to achieve than a stricter limit on a plant-based diet but would still be considered ‘lower carbohydrate’. This is a good range for people interested in a lower-carb diet, and who exercise a lot to burn off calories.
- 50-100 grams: This carbohydrate range would be more difficult to achieve on a plant-based diet since fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes all contain healthy carbs. This level of carb intake is more appropriate for people who exercise less.
- 20-50 grams: This is the number of carbohydrates that someone following the keto diet would aim for, since it's extremely low carb and would bring them into ketosis. It is harder to achieve on a plant-based diet and not recommended over the long term.
Which Carbs Should You Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?
Let’s be clear – all plant-based foods can fit into a healthy diet, as long as you focus on consuming mostly whole-food sources, of carbohydrates and avoid the refined ones. Those whole food carbohydrates will also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and natural compounds called phytonutrients that will help keep you full, help your body work more efficiently, and help reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Whole foods full of fiber also assist with natural weight loss. Healthy whole-food, low glycemic carbohydrates include:
- Legumes such as chickpeas, any type of beans, and lentils
- Whole grains, including quinoa, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, and brown rice
- Wholes fruits, such as apples, bananas, kiwi, mango, oranges, and berries
- Starchy veggies, such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and carrots
Is It Possible to Have a Low Carb, High Protein Plant-Based Diet?
Yes, it is possible to have a high protein, low carb plant-based diet. This takes some careful planning, however, and primarily focusing your diet around the foods that have low net carbs, meaning they are high in fiber and low in carbs. Find the net carb of a food by subtracting the fiber from the total carbs.
Remember, carbohydrates aren’t inherently bad – it’s more about the type of carbohydrates you are eating. Focus on fresh whole foods that are high in fiber. If you eat mostly whole-food plant-based sources of carbohydrates, that is more important than only paying attention to the number of carbohydrates in your diet.
Low Carb Vegan Foods
If you are looking to decrease the number of carbohydrates in your diet, whether you are plant-based, vegetarian, or flexitarian, be sure to include plenty of the following low-carb whole foods. These low-carbohydrate vegan foods can replace some of your whole grains.
Low-starch whole foods include
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts)
- Leafy greens
- Soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and edamame
- Fatty foods such as avocado, olives, and various oils
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashews
- Seeds like chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds
- Berries, such as raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries
Bottom Line: Look for those healthy carbs on a plant-based diet to boost your health.
If you are looking for ways to incorporate those healthy carbs into your plant-based diet, check out The Beet’s Two Week Plant-Based diet!