Carbohydrates – some avoid them, others love them, many of us are simply confused. What’s the truth? Turns out, just like some carbs, it’s a bit complex. Good carbs, bad carbs, no carbs? We dive into all the details so you get the best.
Here’s what you need to know about carbs on a plant-based diet and how to make sense of it all.
1. Carbs are essential
Your cells – every single cell in your body – run on carbs. Carbs are the primary fuel that all humans need and thrive on. When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose and other molecules — it’s the glucose that is used as cell fuel.
Carbs provide energy for all vital reactions in your body. They keep your brain running and are stored in your muscles as a ready-to-use energy source. This storage form of glucose is called glycogen, and when you’re physically active it can fuel your body for about one or two hours, depending on the intensity of your exercise.
When your glycogen starts running out, it’s when you start feeling tired. After you’ve eaten, your body replenishes these muscle stores again. That’s why it’s so important to have some good carb sources post-training.
Types of carbs
What is a carbohydrate? Simply, it is a molecule containing carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. They can be either simple (sugar) or complex (starch and fiber), depending on how many molecules are bound together and their different types.
These have a small molecule which means your body digests them more quickly. They give you a sugar rush but the energy doesn’t last. As a result, you may feel tired and crave more. That can create a cycle of eating too many refined carbohydrates.
Examples of simple carbs include sugar, syrups, and everything they’re commonly found in, like breakfast cereals, snack bars, and pastries. This category also includes white flour products like some bread and pastries. White flour doesn’t contain sugar, but because it’s made out of grains that have been stripped of their nutritious, fibrous outer layers, they digest fast. And that effect on your body is on par with sugar.
Most people don’t really need these carbs unless they’re in the middle of an intense workout, climbing a mountain, or running a marathon – then they provide fast energy. In ‘normal’ life, limiting or avoiding simple carbs can reduce energy swings and weight gain.
Complex or starchy carbs
These carbs combine many molecules into very long chains so your body breaks them down slowly and releases glucose gradually. These are the best sources for long-lasting energy.
Complex carbs are found in wholefoods such as wholegrain bread, oats, brown rice, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, and sweet potatoes. These foods provide a healthy package deal – their complex carbs come together with fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It means they give you healthy energy, maintain steady blood sugar levels, are good for your digestion and overall health.
There’s absolutely no reason to avoid these carbs. A growing body of research points to these as the most beneficial foods to eat.
Fiber is found in plant-based food. It’s a complex carbohydrate that we cannot digest. Fiber is important because it keeps our guts healthy by feeding the beneficial bacteria that live there. There’s another important benefit, too: it slows down energy release from foods and regulates blood sugar and fat. So those simple carbs? Eat them with fiber to help slow the sugar rush.
Fiber is absolutely crucial to a healthy diet. The good news is that it’s an essential component of plant wholefoods (fruit, vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds) so if you base your diet around them, you won’t have to worry about a lack of fiber.
2. How to choose the ‘good carbs’
It may seem clear – white, refined carbs are bad, wholefood carbs are good. But how about fruit or your favourite granola? And are ‘healthy’ drinks a good carb source?
It’s easy to get confused about carbs! Especially as so many products are advertised as healthy yet are far from it. It may seem obvious but always read the ingredients – if sugar is high on the list, it means there’s a lot of it in the product. Try to reduce or eliminate products that note added sugars on the nutrition panel.
At the same time, just because something has a healthy ingredient in it, it isn’t necessarily good for you. For example flapjacks, granola, and oat biscuits are all oat-based yet are usually loaded with sugar or syrups. It’s better to go for natural muesli, oat and nut bars sweetened with dried fruit. However, if you want to eat those biscuits, perhaps just have a couple at a time.
Fruit is another source of confusion. Not all fruits are created equal. Sugars can be more concentrated in some fruits than others. But all fruit contains complex carbs and fiber, which slow down the speed of its sugar release, and offers many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and beneficial phytonutrients. Fruit is among the most natural foods for us so we should eat several portions daily. Looking for the least sweet fruits? Opt for berries instead of grapes, for example.
It’s a different story with fruit juices – they contain almost no fibre and unless they’re freshly made, they undergo a pasteurisation process that may remove some nutrients, too. The result can be little more than sweet water. And it’s similar for convenience, long-life smoothies – many are mostly juice and have only a fraction of whole fruit in them. On the other hand, if you make a fresh smoothie at home, you’re getting all the goodness of the fruit and nothing is lost so it’s a super healthy choice.
When it comes to main meals, always go for wholegrain versions – wholemeal bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, jumbo oats, quinoa, etc. Potatoes can also be a part of a healthy diet but you do digest their carbs fairly fast so it’s best to combine them with vegetables that slow down the whole process – sweet potatoes and other root vegetables. Be carb-smart and there’s no need to give up anything.
3. Sugar is addictive
When you eat sugar, your brain releases the hormone dopamine. It makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat that pleasurable experience. This stems from our evolutionary history because sweet foods are a good source of energy and that used to be crucial for our survival.
However, now there’s too much sugar everywhere and this brain reward is a bit of a trap. It means that your sugar cravings have a biological explanation. But breaking your sugar habit is easier than you think.
The brain reacting to sugar is one part of sugar ‘addiction’, the other is our taste buds – in other words the level of sweetness we’re used to. The latter takes some time to reprogram, but once you’ve done it, you’ll be surprised just how much your taste has changed.
Some people decide to cut sugar out completely, some simply reduce the amount they consume to a minimum. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach so it’s up to you but gradual reduction offers a gentler transition than going ‘cold turkey’. If you put a teaspoon of sugar in your tea or coffee, try halving the amount and after three weeks, halve it again. Why three weeks? That’s how long it usually takes to build a new habit.
4. Low-carb diets are dangerous
Low-carb, ketogenic or paleo diets are usually based around foods high in protein and fat. These diets severely limit carbohydrates. This forces your metabolism to switch gears and draw energy mostly from fat and protein, which makes you less hungry and may lead to weight loss.
Your body can do this for a while but it’s not a natural way for your metabolism to work. It’s why these diets are effective only for short-term weight loss. However, if followed for long periods of time, they can cause issues such as constipation, headaches, kidney fatigue, bad breath, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and even premature death (Bilsborough and Crowe, 2003; Farhadnejad et al., 2019; Mazidi et al., 2019).
5. Healthy Carbs Every Day
We have evolved to thrive on complex carbohydrates, so it’s best to base your diet around their natural sources. This includes a diet rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and pulses (lentils, beans, peas). They release their energy gradually and promote good health by providing vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Our bodies run on carbs, so don’t avoid them. Choose the good ones and you’ll be the best you can be – feeling good, physically and mentally, with plenty of energy to power your day.
Bilsborough SA, Crowe TC. 2003. Low-carbohydrate diets: what are the potential short- and long-term health implications? Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 12 (4) 396-404.
Farhadnejad H, Asghari G, Emamat H, Mirmiran P, Azizi F. 2019. Low-Carbohydrate High-Protein Diet is Associated With Increased Risk of Incident Chronic Kidney Diseases Among Tehranian Adults. Journal of Renal Nutrition. 29 (4) 343-349.
Mazidi M, Katsiki N, Mikhailidis DP, Sattar N, Banach M.2019. Lower carbohydrate diets and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a population-based cohort study and pooling of prospective studies. European Heart Journal. 40 (34) 2870-2879.