November 7, 2021
From The Beet

When switching to a plant-based diet, macro counters may find themselves wondering about the carbs in plant-based proteins. After all, beans and legumes are quite starchy and take space in both the protein and carb categories. And with the constant worry that carbs make you gain weight, balancing carbs and protein on a plant-based diet may seem like an impossible task. But are all carbs created equal, and should you even worry about the carb content of whole food plant-based diet? Probably not, and here’s why.

Are carbs “bad” for you?

In the nutrition world, the claim that eating carbs make you fat is one of the biggest misconceptions around. It assumes that all carbs are created equal, which they are not. For example, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes all fall into the carb category, along with soda, desserts, chips, pretzels, and other processed foods. Distinguishing the healthy from the not-so-healthy carbs is one of the keys to figuring out how to eat right on a plant-based diet. Whereas whole food carbs provide beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants to the diet, processed refined carbs usually lack many nutrients. It’s well known that eating an ultra-processed diet is associated with an increased risk of obesity and heart disease, making choosing the right type of carbs key to a healthy diet.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories come from carbohydrates. In other words, the majority of your diet should consist of carbs. This translates to about 3 to 5 grams per kilogram (1.3 to 2.2 grams per pound) of body weight per day. For a 150-pound individual, that’s about 195 to 330 grams of carbs each day. The number of daily carbs a person needs varies greatly based on activity level, with active people needing more. Since carbs are the primary fuel for exercise, those who engage in regular endurance activity may need anywhere from 5 to 10 grams of carbs per kilogram (2.2 to 4.5 grams per pound) of body weight per day. For that same 150-pound person, that equals 330 to 675 grams of carbs each day.

Why is the recommendation for carbs so high? Well, this macronutrient plays an important role in maintaining energy levels for daily life and exercise, and fueling the brain and other organs. What’s more, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (aka carbs) can help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Despite these benefits, only 9 percent of adults eat the recommended amount of vegetables and 12 percent of adults eat the recommended amount of fruit, according to CDC analysis.

Should I worry about plant-based carbs? 

When you look at the carb count on beans, lentils, or brown rice, you may feel like you exceed the recommended percentage of daily carbs. After all, 100 grams of lentils has 9 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbs, as compared to 32 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbs in 100 grams of chicken. If you’re eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds, chances are that your daily carb count falls within the 45-65 percent of calories. And research suggests that it may not matter even if it goes beyond that “ideal” range.

A recent study in the journal Nature Medicine placed 20 participants on either an animal-based diet with 10 percent carbs and 75 percent fat or a plant-based diet with 75 percent carbs and 10 percent fat. Both groups consumed 5 percent of calories from protein, and neither restricted calories. Although the higher-carb plant-based eaters experienced higher insulin spikes after eating, they ate fewer total calories and lost more body fat than the low-carb eaters. Although this study was small in size, the results are promising and warrant further investigation.

An animal study used 29 different types of diets to test the carbohydrate-insulin model, a theory that suggests that insulin spikes occurring after eating carbs increase calorie intake and decrease energy expenditure, leading to weight gain. Like the people in the previous study, after three months, the mice on the higher-carb diets actually ate fewer calories, gained less fat, and had lower body weight. Lastly, a recent review of current research found that a high-carbohydrate diet or increased percentage of total energy intake in the form of carbohydrates does not increase the odds of obesity.

Bottom Line: Don’t worry about the carbs in whole plant-based foods like beans

Whole plant-based foods are so full of fiber and nutrients you should build your diet on eating as many plant-based foods as you can. Of course, eating too much of any macronutrient can cause weight gain. If you are constantly consuming more calories than you burn off, the body stores those calories as fat. This can happen when the excess calories are carbs, protein, or fat. But it’s hard not to get full first if you’re eating healthy vegetables, legumes, and fruit.  Plant-based diets are associated with lower body mass index (BMI), so don’t worry about carb counting if you’re eating a primarily whole foods plant-based diet.