We examine the role that carbohydrate plays in our diets and where you should be getting your healthy carbs from as part of a balanced vegan diet
For years, carbohydrates have been demonised as the culprit behind weight gain, diabetes, and other health issues.
However, not all carbs are created equal, and in fact, they play an important role in a healthy vegan diet.
Let’s explore the truth about this misunderstood macronutrient, as we give you some myth-busting tips on how to eat well while incorporating healthy carbs into your meals.
What are carbohydrates?
According to biologist Veronika Charvatova, a carbohydrate is a molecule made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They can be either simple (sugar) or complex (starch and fibre), depending on how many molecules are bound together, the different types and quantity.
Both simple and complex carbohydrates can be a part of a healthy diet. As carbohydrates are digested, they release glucose into the bloodstream. Some foods release it faster. Based on this, a measurement of glucose-release speed has been invented – the glycaemic index (GI).
Foods that release glucose fast have a high GI and are a good source of fast energy – dates, refined cereals, potatoes.
Foods that release it slowly have a low GI and are good for sustained energy release over a longer period of time – most fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds.Then there’s a whole range of foods with a medium GI – wholegrain products, brown rice, porridge.
Foods with a high GI are a good source of fast energy, while those with a low GI release energy slowly over time. Photo © agrobacter via Getty Images
What are simple carbs?
Simple carbs are either single sugar molecules (glucose, fructose) or two sugar molecules linked together (table sugar, milk sugar – lactose).
They are digested fast and we should therefore watch our intake – with the exception of fruit and vegetables.
These naturally contain fructose, a simple sugar, but if eaten fresh and whole they also supply a wealth of complex carbohydrates along with many other nutrients, which slow down the speed of sugar release.
Fruit and vegetables are among the healthiest foods, so there’s no need to limit their intake. They are best eaten raw, lightly cooked or blended in a smoothie, but avoid canned varieties.
Beware of fruit juices, as they contain almost no fibre and, unless freshly made, undergo a pasteurisation process that destroys most of the goodness.
The result can be little more than sweet water. It’s similar for convenience smoothies – many are mostly juice and have only a fraction of whole fruit in. They’re also pasteurised. You’re better off making your own!
Simple carbs such as white brea, chips, and cakes are digested fast so are best consumed in small quantities. However, they're also found in fruit and vegetables, which you can eat in abundance. Photo © Lara Belova via Getty Images
What are complex carbs?
These consist of many molecules linked together in complex structures and usually mean starch and fibre. The difference is that we can digest starch well, your body breaking it down into single glucose molecules, while we cannot digest fibre.
Starch is naturally a part of many foods, such as wholegrains, pulses, root vegetables, pumpkins, courgettes and so on, all of which belong in a healthy diet. These foods contain starch along with many other nutrients and your body digests them more slowly.
On the other hand, refined starches used as a binding agent in foods such as biscuits, processed snacks and sweets, are extracted from natural sources in a process that strips off other nutrients.
This ensures they aren’t very healthy, because you digest them quickly, which may result in high blood sugar levels.
Too much sugar in your blood at any given moment – more than your cells can take up – and your body will try to restore the balance by removing some of the sugar and storing it as fat.
Foods that are rich in complex carbs include beans, oats, whole-wheat bread, quinoa, barley, sweet potatoes, and many other plant foods. Photo © anaumenko via Adobe Stock
Are carbohydrates bad for you?
The simple answer is no, carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet! According to healthy eating guidelines, carbohydrate is the main source of energy in balanced diets, and some carbohydrate-rich plant foods are important sources of a variety of nutrients.
Healthy carbs include fruit and starchy foods like oats, noodles, potatoes and rice. As a rule of thumb, it’s good to get your carbs from high-fibre foods, such as wholegrains and skin-on potatoes.
A lot of other nutritious plant foods contain some carbohydrates as part of a varied nutritional profile. For example, legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils provide some ‘slow-release’ energy in the form of carbohydrates, as well as good-quality vegan protein.
A portion of healthy carbohydrates can add extra nutrients into your day while giving you an energy boost. Image © Vegan Food & Living
Are low-carb diets healthy?
Low-carb, ketogenic or paleo diets usually focus on high protein and fatty foods and severely restrict the intake of carbohydrates. This forces your metabolism to change and draw the energy mostly from fat and protein, which makes you less hungry and leads to weight loss.
But – and it’s a big but! – these diets are effective only for short term weight loss and have a range of unpleasant adverse effects such as constipation, headaches, kidney fatigue, bad breath, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased cholesterol levels and more.
In the long term, they are not any more effective for weight loss and maintenance than low-fat diets, which don’t have the nasty side effects and allow your body to function naturally.
Tips for cutting sugar from your diet
The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that most UK diets contain too much of this type of carbohydrate and healthy eating guidance encourages us to limit our intake of sugar.
The following tips from Vegan Society dietician Heather Russell will help you to eat well and make plenty of room in your diet for nutrient-dense foods:
- Choose plain breakfast cereals and add your favourite nutritious toppings for sweetness, such as fresh berries, chopped apple and raisins.
- For a healthy sweet snack that’s a bit different, try freezing grapes or a peeled banana.
- It’s often possible to simply reduce the amount of sugar used when baking, so don’t be afraid to experiment with healthy dessert recipes.
- Limit any fruit juices or smoothies to a small glass (150ml) daily.
- Drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and more tap water –a healthy and sustainable choice.
Remember that our sugar preferences are flexible, but it might take a few weeks to get used to a new or different taste.
According to healthy eating guidelines, carbohydrate is the main source of energy in balanced diets. Image © newannyart via Getty Images
How to eat enough healthy carbs to fuel an active lifestyle
During long training or endurance races, athletes often need to replenish energy fast and that means eating fast carbs on the go. The best natural sources are:
- Mashed sweet potatoes
These foods help to provide energy to fuel the performance when the body’s own energy stores start running out.
However, if your workouts don’t last longer than 60-90 minutes (depending on intensity), you probably don’t need to worry about it.
If you’re an active person, it’s particularly important to pay attention to your carbohydrate intake. Here are a few tips for fuelling an energy-demanding lifestyle:
- Eat regularly throughout the day, including carbohydrate-rich foods like oats, potato, brown rice, wholewheat noodles and pasta, wholemeal bread and fruit. If your appetite is limited, opting for some white noodles, pasta and rice will help to make your diet a bit less bulky.
- If you’re not able to have a light meal two to three hours before exercise, dried fruit, sports drinks, fruit juice, smoothies or carbohydrate gels can be useful immediately before sport and during lengthy activities when other forms of carbohydrate may not be tolerated. Remember to wash them down with water and look after your teeth.
- After exercise, refuel with a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack and rehydrate as soon as possible to support a quick recovery.
Ready to let carbs back into your life? Find out which carbohydrates are the most sustainable.
Featured image © ricka_kinamoto via Adobe Stock