Carbohydrate on a Vegan Diet: Literally Everything You Need to Know
Figuring out your carbohydrate intake on a vegan diet may seem puzzling:
Low-carb, high-carb, raw fruitarian, vegan ketogenic diet (yeah it's a thing), starch-based...
...I think it's safe to say that opinions are split when it comes to this macronutrient.
While it's technically the only macronutrient that you could survive without, cutting all carbs is not a particularly brilliant idea for several reasons.
The truth is that carbohydrate can be hugely useful for enhancing performance and recovery, improving overall mood and wellbeing, and accelerating muscle and strength gains during both bulking and cutting.
So in today's post I will give you the facts behind carbohydrate:
We'll take a thorough look at the notion of 'carbs lead to weight gain', if a high-carb or low-carb diet is right for you, and some actionable tips that you can make use of today to get your carb intake dialed in perfectly.
Let's get to it!
101 on Carbohydrate
So, what exactly is a carbohydrate?
At it's essence the term refers to a number different organic compounds made out of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (CHO).
Carbohydrate, or carbs, along with proteins and fat it's one of the three major macronutrients that makes up our diet.
These are found in foods such as pasta, muffins, rice, vegetables, fruits, sugar, soda and all that good stuff.
The primary function of carbohydrate is to be broken down to provide energy for the cells in your body - being both the preferred fuel source for muscles and the brain (one exception being insoluble fiber which can not be digested).
Now despite being a very important part of a healthy vegan diet, and immensely valuable for any athlete, it's not actually essential for survival.
While you need some amount of fat and protein everyday to not fall over and die - there's no such requirement for carbohydrate.
Meaning you could get along at least somewhat fine with a dietary carbohydrate intake at zero.
What happens under such circumstances is that the body undergoes metabolic adaptions to transition from using carbohydrate to using fat as a the primary energy source (the primary shift being towards using ketone bodies as fuel, hence the name 'ketogenic' diet).
That doesn't mean carbs are useless, far from it. But we'll get into that later in this article.
Now these organic compounds come in a variety of shapes, forms and sizes:
When deconstructed all carbohydrates are made from the same building blocks called monosaccharides, or also known as simple sugar molecules.
The most important one would be glucose:
This fellow is measured as blood sugar when it enters your bloodstream and serves as the primary metabolic fuel for all of the cells in your body.
Simply put glucose is what allows both your brain to function properly, process information, form memories and all that stuff, and it's also what provides the required energy for the muscles in your body to lift weights or engage in other physical activities.
Another simple sugar you've probably heard of is fructose which is present naturally in different fruits and vegetables.
Together fructose and glucose can fuse together to create discharides such as sucrose, a.k.a regular table sugar.
When simple sugars such as glucose bind together, larger more complex molecules are formed:
These types of molecule are referred to as complex carbohydrates.
For example starch is a complex carb made from long chains of glucose and is unsurprisingly found in starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, corn, oatmeal etc.
Then there's cellulose, or what is known as fiber.
Due to the structure and particularly tough chemical bonds, we as humans lack the capacity to break it down entirely for energy needs.
That doesn't mean it's useless, quite the contrary.
Fiber increases satiety, facilitates healthy digestion and bowel movements...
...and a type of fiber called soluble fibers are fermented by the microbiota into short-chain fatty acids which can potentially offer a wide range of health benefits.
Furthermore, dietary fiber intake reduces cholesterol levels and has been associated with reduced risk of obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease,
The key takeaway on fiber is that it's bloody awesome (and a whole food plant based diet provides loads of good fiber which is also awesome)
Does Eating Lots of Carbohydrate Make You Fat?
From an outsider's perspective a vegan diet might look like a ticking bomb for weight gain...
... I mean, just look at all of those carbs!
When I first went vegan this was actually one of my biggests concerns when it came to the diet side of things.
I thought that surely, eating north of 400 grams per day is way too much and will put me in a position where I gain tons of unwanted fat. Though I couldn't really explain why this would happen, except for the advice fed to me by main-stream media and diet gurus.
Is this truly a rational fear?
Well, a lot of the criticisms have to do with the hormone insulin and it's purported nefarious effects in the body, so that's a good place to start exploring the subject:
Insulin's Function in The Body
When you eat any food your digestion system will breakdown said food into it's nutritional components (protein, fats and carbohydrate) for your body to use.
And here is where the hormone insulin comes in real handy:
It's primary job is to 'open up' the cells so that they are ready to receive and absorb the nutrients you just ate.
Say you have a tasty vegan muffin and it's components are now floating around in your bloodstream in the form of amino acids, glucose and fatty acids.
This rise in blood sugar signals to your pancreas that it's time to secrete insulin to take care of these wandering nutrients. So insulin arrives and shuttles them into your muscle and fat tissue.
After this process is done, insulin levels go back down again to baseline.
So as you can see insulin serves a rather vital function in the body as a 'general storage hormone', otherwise it would be hard to store nutrients for future usage if need be.
Now here's the part that freaks people out about insulin:
Remember I wrote "shuttles them into your muscle and fat tissue". Well insulin inhibits both the breakdown of fat cells and stimulates creation of body fat.
Which means insulin stops your body from burning fat as a fuel source, and encourages fat gain by pushing glucose and fatty acids into your cells.
This specific attribute of insulin has lead to carbs being blamed over the past decade and a half (or longer) as the devil incarnate. The overly simplified explanation usually goes something like:
- 1Eating lots of carbohydrates throughout the day spikes insulin.
- 2Chronically raised insulin levels tell the body to deposit all consumed energy as fat.
- 3Sooo, the key to avoiding weight gain and lose belly fat - is to reduce carbs/insulin so that you stay "fat-burning-mode"
Eating less/no carbs = produces less/no insulin = less/no fat is stored = become lean and avoid weight gain.
While it sounds good in theory, it's 100% bullshit and I'll tell you why.
Eating too many calories is what makes you fat, not insulin or carbs.
It's silly thinking that cutting all carbs and reducing insulin levels would magically make your body instantly go from "Yay, happy fat burning mode!" to "Booo, sad fat gaining mode".
Especially when you consider the science behind how weight loss actually happens.
It isn't as complicated as you might think:
Either you're in what is called the 'postprandial phase', a technical term for after having eaten a meal, where the body's main focus is storing nutrients such as fat...
...or it's in the 'postabsorptive stage' where your digestive system is empty and the body switches to instead using stored nutrients for energy needs.
So over a 24 hour period your body switches between these 'fed' and 'fasted' states, both storing fat after meals and then burning it off again.
Here's a picture where I've tried to illustrate this (ignore the horrible design):
How much time you spend on average being either 'fed' or 'fasted' is what determines weight gain or loss.
In a case where less nutrients are put into the body than what is used, the result is relatively more time spent in the post-absorptive (fat burning) phase than post-prandial (fat storing) phase.
In accordance with the first law of thermodynamics (energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed), this here over the course of hours, days and week is what allows you to burn fat and get leaner.
Check out the picture below from a study that had three obese people eat 1500 kcal per day with two different diet setups - one without carbohydrates and one with 74% carbohydrates.
There are clear changes in insulin levels, but rate of weight loss remained constant.
And it's not like this is one isolated, cherry-picked study.
ALL of the studies done in metabolic wards where protein intake, energy and food consumption are held constant between groups...
...have shown over and over again that there is no difference in weight loss when comparing low-carb and high-carb diets.
What's the bottomline here then?
Don't fool yourself thinking weight loss is a result of manipulating your endocrine system. When it comes to weight gain and weight loss, it boils down to the simple concept of energy balance.
High Carb vs Low Carb Vegan Diet?
Hopefully I have made it abundantly clear that carbs aren't the devil in disguise, and eating them won't automatically cause you to balloon up.
With that out of the way...
...how much should you consume relative to other macronutrients?
I know that within the vegan community there's a rather prevalent 'carb-fetish' which might not suit the needs of everybody.
Regardless of your goals, genetics, current body composition the answer seems always to be 'carb up baby!' and eat a shit ton of bananas all of the time.
Having a hard time building muscle? 80/10/10!
Having a hard time losing fat? 80/10/10!
Just for the record, this is not an approach I recommend taking when it comes to carbohydrate intake.
While glucose is the body's preferred fuel source, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a particularly smart or productive thing for all individuals to drown themselves in starch, fructose and other carbs.
A huge flaw to this school of thought is that you won't fit in as much protein or fat within your calorie intake, both of which are tremendously important for optimal health as well as building muscle and strength (hence why a 80/10/10 macro split probably won't give you the results you want).
In fact, going higher on fats is not a death sin and it might be appropriate for some individuals and under certain circumstances.
Not everyone is alike due to the way nature is set up with inter-individual variance in genes.
One study found that there was up to a 40% difference between individual athletes in utilization of either carbohydrate and fat for energy needs...
...and another study on obese women found that if you're insulin sensitive you might lose more weight with a high-carb, low-fat diet, whereas if you are insulin resistant a lower-carb, higher-fat approach might help you lose more weight.
This means that different individuals can thrive on a variety of different (vegan) diets, both higher in carbohydrates and higher in fats.
I would go out on a limb and say that if you're overweight, diabetic and lead a sedentary lifestyle, you'll most certainly be better off on a vegan low-carb diet simply because the extra energy is not needed.
Even otherwise healthy and active individuals might find that too many carbs have them feeling sluggish and tired throughout the day, and experience more stable energy levels with a moderate-high fat approach.
If that's been your experience, do not feel like there's some sort of vegan obligation to go super high carb all of the time.
How Much Carbohydrate To Gain Muscle?
If you want to maximize muscle gains, and if your body tolerates carbs well, then by all means high-carb is the way to go.
As noted above, when carbohydrate is broken down it provides energy in the form of glucose or blood sugar.
Glucose that is not immediately used for energy needs gets stored as glycogen - a form of potential energy in the liver and muscles.
During high-intensity exercise e.g. lifting weights your muscles utilize these glycogen stores as the primary energy source.
Given that your muscles rely on glycogen to lift weights, it makes sense to eat enough carbohydrate to avoid running into the issue of low glycogen levels.
You don't have to be Einstein to figure this out.
Go ahead and perform a workout without a single carb in your system versus having a big meal of sweet potatoes and black beans before.
It becomes obvious pretty fast which dietary approach results in better performance, energy levels and vastly better muscle pumps.
One interesting study had experienced cyclists perform 30 repetitions of knee extensions (70% of 1RM) with either low or high muscle glycogen levels.
What they found in the group with low muscle glycogen was impaired cell signaling for pathways that regulate muscle growth.
And as we've repeated over and over again, carbohydrate elevates insulin levels.
However what you might not know is that insulin has some anabolic properties.
You see, insulin decrease the rate at which muscle proteins are broken down, meaning it increases the net amount of muscle growth per day.
That's pretty awesome.
How Much Carbohydrate To Lose Weight?
I'll admit that low-carb dieting is a viable option for weight loss.
This is particularly so for those that are sedentary, obese and/or diabetic where their bodies simply don't know how to process carbs or use them in any meaningful way.
However there's no evidence indicating it is more effective for weight loss compared to high-carb dieting.
Here's the thing:
All studies that claim they have demonstrated a metabolic advantage of ketogenic and low-carb diets over high-carb diets are misleading.
These studies all share one major design flaw - protein intake is not controlled for and the low-carb groups as a rule always contain more protein.
You can't compare a high-protein, low-carb diet to a low-protein, high-carb diet and draw any conclusions because protein is highly satiating AND has a thermic effect.
As a matter of fact, in order to both shred fat and retain muscle mass, carbohydrate has been shown to be a very useful tool...
...and it's likely got to do with their capacity to boost performance in the gym.
In a recent review with guidelines for natural bodybuilding and fat loss, the authors state that it's extremely important to hit a certain amount of carbohydrate each day if you want to keep your gains.
While it appears low carbohydrate, high protein diets can be effective for weight loss, a practical carbohydrate threshold appears to exist where further reductions negatively impact performance and put one at risk for LBM losses.
So if you need to bring calories down and sacrifice calories somewhere during a weight loss phase, it's first going to be fat, and then carbs.
Another recent piece of evidence that supports this to be true, is that bodybuilding competitors that place in the top 5 consume more carbohydrate compared to those that place outside of the top 5.
What is the bottomline here?
To cut down and preserve lean muscle mass, there are good reasons to make sure you get in enough carbs to fill those glycogen stores and keep gym performance intact.
How to Calculate Your Optimal Carb Intake
A review on nutrition guidelines for strength sports, provides recommended carbohydrate intakes for bodybuilding be between 4–7 g/kg.
So in my case as I weigh 80 kg that would mean a range of 80 x 4-7 = 320-560 g carbs.
You can put in your numbers and do the math and it should give you a good ballpark number to aim for.
That's one way of doing it.
Another way is explained in the article explaining vegan macros - where after having calculated protein and fat, you fill up the rest with carbohydrate until your caloric goal for the day is met.
So say your vegan macros are 100 g of protein, 50 g of fat and 2500 calories or whatever they may be.
Doing the math that would leave 1650 calories left for carbohydrate, and as 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 kcal, that would be 413 grams.
Generally speaking, the majority of vegan athletes will perform at optimal capacity by eating a diet with as much carbohydrate as possible. Hence why this method of determining carbohydrate intake is preferable as it maximizes said macronutrient.
Great Sources of Vegan Carbohydrate
What type of carbohydrate should you base your intake around?
A good place to start are complex and fibrous carbs from mostly whole foods such as:
These are the carbohydrates that we consume "as grown in nature."
They are low in calorie density and high in starch, fiber and other nutrients - which means that they fill you up with tons of nutitional value, and with fewer calories.
This would be your "safe carbs" that you can eat A LOT of because of the low calorie density and fiber content (plus all the additional nutrients you get as a packaged deal).
As for refined carbs (pastas, breads, muffins and such) it's absolutely fine to fit them into a diet in moderate amounts if you don't go overboard on calories for the day.
So... I hope this article gave you a new perspective on carbs (or any other bits of information you found helpful).
If you have friends that are carb-o-phobes please share this article so that we can convert them!
How Much Carbohydrate Should You Eat on a Vegan Diet?