How Much Carbohydrate Should You Eat on a Vegan Diet?
Trying to figure out your ideal carbohydrate intake can be quite difficult:
Low-carb, high-carb, raw fruitarian, ketogenic diet, starch-based...
... I think it's safe to say that opinions are split on this subject.
And while it's technically the only macronutrient that you could survive without, you probably don't want to choose that path.
The reality is that loading up on carbs is hugely important for improving performance, speeding up recovery, and building a lean and muscular body.
Now that does not mean you get a free pass to devour pop-tarts and oreos - you need to eat the right kind of carbs.
So what are 'the right kind of carbs'? Well, in this article I will give you the facts about carbohydrate on a vegan diet:
You'll learn what carb sources that are safe to indulge in (and those that you should limit), guidelines for a vegan athlete and exactly how to calculate your carbohydrate intake for optimal performance and results in the gym.
Let's do it!
What is carbohydrate?
Carbohydrate, or carbs, along with proteins and fats is one the three major macronutrients.
It's the preferred fuel source for the body and the brain, used to support all of your physical and mental efforts.
The type of carbohydrate called fiber doesn't provide any energy, but is still tremendously important for keeping your digestive system running smoothly (along with a plethora of health benefits such as helping protect against colon cancer!)
Most people have no trouble pointing out carbohydrate in foods:
It's the stuff found in pasta, breads, pizza, potatoes, soda and cakes.
Now, both a potato and a can of soda contains some type of carbohydrate, but that's about where the similarities end.
The lumping together of all food with some amount of carbs into the same group results in a very unwieldy term.
For instance the poor potato is regarded by many as a 'fattening carb'. Well is that because of the starch content, or is it because we're obsessed with dousing potatoes in butter, grease and oil?
So in order to make healthy food choices, we need to have a firm grasp of different carbohydrates.
Sugars, starches and fibers
Confused by what constitutes a complex carb and a simple carb?
Well, be confused no more.
Let's quickly go over the basics of different carbohydrates.
Any carbohydrate is made out of building blocks in the form of monosaccharides (simple sugar molecules), similiar to how proteins are made from long strings of amino acids.
So any form of carbohydrate, whether it be in brown rice or a can of coke, can be broken down into these three basic monosaccharides:
This is the primary metabolic fuel for the cells in your body, we refer to it as blood sugar when it circulates in your blood system.
All of the other carbohydrate you eat must be broken down by enzymes into glucose in order to be used as energy.
This monosaccharide is present naturally in many fruits and vegetables either as a simple sugar, or as a component of sucrose.
Contrary to glucose which is metabolized widely in the body, fructose is metabolized in the liver where it's converted into glucose and lactate.
Component of lactose, a sugar found in dairy products which is converted by the body into glucose.
Now the term simple carbohydrate or sugars also include disaccharides.
As you might suspect these molecules are made from two monosaccharides.
The most common are:
More commonly recognized as regular ol' table sugar. It is composed out of one part glucose and one part fructose, and get's broken down by the enzyme sucrase into it's two components.
Also known as malt sugar, made from two glucose molecules which get's broken down by maltase enzymes.
The sugar found in milk and dairy products, made from the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. This sugar is broken down by the enzymes lactase. (Those with a lactose intolerance lack this enzyme and thusly can not digest any dairy products.)
The monosaccharides can undergo a series of reactions where they bind together and form large molecules called polysaccharides, or also known as complex carbs.
There are three main types of polysaccharides:
This polysaccharide consists of glucose molecules and is produced by plants as a means of energy storage. It's present in, lo and behold, starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, corn, oatmeal etc.
Can be thought of as "animal-starch". Glycogen is a polysaccharide of glucose which serves as an energy storage in our muscles and liver.
Cellulose is more widely known as fiber and makes up the cell walls in plant cells.
Due to the structure and chemical bonds it's a particularly tough polysaccharide. In fact it's so tough that we lack the capacity to digest it for energy needs.
That doesn't mean it's of no value to us, far from it.
It increases satiety, facilitates healthy digestion and soluble fibers is fermented by the microbiota into short-chain fatty acids which can potentially offer a wide range of health benefits.
Furthermore, dietary fiber reduces cholesterol levels and is associated with reduced risk of obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease,
(I could go on and on about the importance of fiber but that's a topic for another article)
The difference between oatmeal and table sugar
We've established that all carbohydrates are made from the same building blocks, simple sugars.
So while oatmeal and table sugar are made from the same stuff...
...they are each processed by the body in fundamentally different ways.
Oatmeal contains carbohydrate in the form of mostly starch and with some fiber.
As oatmeal is a minimally processed whole grain it also contains tons of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that your body needs
The first step in digesting oatmeal is to mechanically grind the oats with your teeth, which also introduces the enzyme amylase found in saliva that starts breaking down the carbohydrate.
When the starch then reaches the digestive system it is further broken down into glucose through various enzymes and processes.
And as noted above, while we do not have the required enzymes to break down the fiber for energy, that doesn't mean it's useless.
Oatmeal contains a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan that attracts water and turns to gel which helps healthy digestion. Moreover, it's also been shown to reduce total and LDL (bad) cholesterol in clinical trials and increase satiety.
All in all, it's going to take some time for your body to process oatmeal and turn it into glucose - which results in a slow and sustained release of glucose, keeping your blood sugar within a healthy range.
As noted above table sugar, or sucrose, is disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose.
Table sugar is produced by extracting and refining sugar cane or sugar beet, which effectively eliminates all fiber and beneficial nutrients, leaving only pure energy or 'empty calories'.
As the fiber is taken away there is nothing to chew anymore, so it goes straight to your digestive system (the sugar also helps feed bacteria in your mouth that breaks down your tooth enamel).
The only step in the digestion is the enzyme sucrase that breaks down sucrose.
The glucose and fructose are then rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream resulting in a rapid rise in blood glucose (the complete lack of fiber exacerbating the problem), followed by a large dip in blood sugar.
The continuum of carbohydrates
As illustrated, carbs are certainly not created equal.
So what is it that makes oatmeal a generally better choice than table sugar?
When it comes to discerning healthier carbs from less-healthy carbs, you need to understand the effects that refining and processing has on a food.
If you do, you'll realize that a potato isn't the spawn of satan, but an incredibly healthy food.
You'll also realize that some individuals might benefit from cutting out pasta and breads from their diet (while some can enjoy them in moderation).
Unrefined and minimally processed carbohydrates
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.
(And if I would go out on a limb I'd wager that we could eradicate obesity if we would limit the calories we consume to these foods.)
Here are some examples of these carb sources:
Refined and processed carbohydrates
These are carbohydrates that have undergone some degree of processing or refinement.
Let's take a look at pasta.
Pasta noodles do not grow in pasta bushes in South America.
It's made from whole wheat grains that have been crushed by a mill, and where the fibre-rich germ and bran is removed, in order to create a white wheat flour that is then shaped into noodles that we call pasta.
Here's what happens to the whole wheat grains during the pasta-making process:
These principles apply to some degree to all refined carbohydrates:
Any kind of pasta and noodles, white rice, regular and whole-wheat breads, fruit juices, table sugar, basically any carbohydrate you can think of that has been tampered with by humans.
Should you cut out all refined carbs?
You've probably heard or read somewhere that you have to cut out all refined carbs to look good and for optimal health and performance.
Well there is some truth to this statement, but it does not paint the whole picture.
Obviously, there are better and worse refined carbs:
For instance a whole-wheat bread, where the bran and germ is included, still retains quite a bit of nutrients and can definitely be a part of a healthy diet (even though the calorie density is higher.)
Sugar is devoid of nutrients, is super calorically dense, gets absorbed more or less instantly which spikes blood sugar. You don't have to be a genius to realize this shouldn't constitute a major source of calories in your diet.
Though I will say that the matter of sugar is not as black and white as some people make it out to be.
Despite its many flaws it can absolutely be part of a healthy diet in moderaton, perhaps sprinkled on top of some oatmeal or in the occasional treat.
Remember, the dose makes the poison.
So while refined carbs generally speaking are not as good for you as foods "as grown in nature", that doesn't necessarily mean you have to eliminate all of them.
You just need to be aware of the implications that refining has and adjust your food choices based on your situation and needs.
If you're an athlete with a high metabolism and require tons of calories, you might be able to down pounds of pasta, bread and white rice every day and still be healthy and meet all nutritional requirements.
If you're severely overweight and to boot insulin-resistant, then even something as seemingly harmless as whole-wheat pasta might impede your weight loss goals.
Does carbs lead to fat gain?
This question deserves a dedicated article to answer properly (which I am working on)...
... but in short, no.
Here's the truth about carbs and fat gain:
All the studies comparing high-fat and high-carb diets in metabolic wards, where you can control both energy consumption and food intake to 100 percent...
...have consistently found no difference in weight loss when protein intake is held constant.
That's right, it doesn't matter how you manipulate macros, it still results in the same amount of weight loss.
So despite the mechanistic explanation of carb = insulin = fat gain touted by keto proponents, there's no evidence at all to back this up.
(Nope, studies that doesn't equal calories and protein do not count as evidence)
In fact contrary to public opinion, the body is quite reluctant to storing carbs as fat:
Why would the body bother with converting carbs into fat, when it can take the least metabolically costly pathway and simply store dietary fat instead?
However in the same breath there's no such thing as a carb-loophole, where you can avoid fat gain by eating only carbs and avoiding fat. The laws of thermodynamics still very much apply and you are going to gain fat by eating in a surplus consisting of carbohydrate.
Carbohydrate intake for vegan athletes
Get rid of any fears you have for carbs and start embracing this nutrient.
Carbs are not your enemy and they won't make you fat.
The truth is that carbs are incredibly helpful for increasing performance, and will help you with both building muscle and losing fat.
You can think of them as vegan steroids (perhaps not the best analogy... oh well).
Carbohydrate is the macronutrient that fuels your brain and body and provides you with the energy needed to perform in the gym.
During high-intensity exercise your muscles utilize the glycogen stores as an immediate source of fuel...
... and keeping these glycogen stores replenished with carbohydrate enhances workout performance.
You don't have to be Einstein to figure this out.
Go ahead and perform a workout without any carbs 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 more energy, improved mental state, better pumps and performance.
How to determine your vegan carbohydrate 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 result in: 80 x 4-7 = 320-560 g carbs
In my opinion there's a far easier way of calculating carb intake.
As explained in the article explaining vegan macros, after having filled up on enough protein and fat for the day, you add carbohydrate until your caloric goal for the day is met.
So say your macros are 100 g of protein, 50 g of fat and 2500 calories.
Doing the math that would leave 1650 calories left for carbohydrate which is 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.
In a recent review with guidelines for natural bodybuilding, it's mentioned that during cutting a high carbohydrate intake is extremely important for maintaining training intensity. So if you need to sacrifice calories somewhere it's first going to be fat, and then carbs.
But in the same token it should also be mentioned that there can be up to a 40% difference in how efficiently individuals utilize either carbohydrate or fat for energy demands.
Furthermore, if you're insulin sensitive you might lose more weight with a high-carb, low-fat diet whereas if you are insulin resistant a higher-fat approach might help you lose more weight.
So if you feel 100x better eating more fat with more energy, and you see better results, then definitely go for it. There's no need to be dogmatic about eating a high-carb diet.
Great sources of carbohydrate
Ideally you should base your carb intake around predominantly complex and fibrous carbs from whole foods.
As I stated previously, you can't ever go wrong with carb sources "as grown in nature":
This would be your "safe carbs" that you can pretty much overeat to your heart's content because of the low calorie density and fiber content (plus all the additional nutrients you get as a packaged deal).
As for refined carbs you can absolutely fit them into your diet if you take into account the potential drawbacks of refined foods as well as your unique needs.
That is to say, obese people will most likely be better off not eating breads, pastas, cakes and sugar. Athletes on the other hand might actually benefit from the higher calorie density of refined foods such as pastas and even sugar.
Everything in moderation.
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?