What Kinds of Carbs are Included in a Plant-Based Diet?
Great question! Glad you asked. All plant foods have varying amounts of three macro nutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. In order to have a well-balanced diet, not only do we need to be eating top-tier foods, (see this article) which are the highest quality foods, we also need to balance quantities from each of these groups. Balancing the types of carbohydrates that we consume is an important part of our diet.
Every meal that we consume should have some good carbs (check out this article for details). Some of the best carbohydrate sources include fruits, grains, and starchy vegetables. All of these have important nutrients for health. But because all carbohydrates are made up short or long chains of sugars, they also have the potential to affect blood sugars differently. As Dr. Wes Youngberg says, “not all carbohydrates are created equal”. Your top-tier, whole food sources of carbohydrates are those that are best for good blood sugar control, while those second-tier carbohydrates are not as good, but are better than the third-tier carbohydrates.
If you have any problems with blood sugar such as diabetes, pre-diabetes, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugars) or you are struggling with being overweight, you especially need to pay attention to both the quality and quantity of carbohydrates that you consume. Foods comprised of higher quantities of carbohydrates are:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Sugars (brown or white sugar, candy, sodas, baked goods like doughnuts, cakes and pies)
- Grains (rice, wheat flour products like breads and muffins, pasta, cereals, and oats)
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes)
- Non-starchy vegetables
It can be helpful to keep track of your carbohydrate intake, at least for a few weeks, to get a handle on your consumption of this macro nutrient. There are several ways to do this. Tracking can be very helpful in controlling both blood sugar and weight trends.
Carb Tracking Method 1
If you usually have your smartphone or portable digital device like iPod or iPad with you, there are several apps that can make carb tracking quite simple to do. My favorite is My Fitness Pal. It is free (you can upgrade and get extra features for a few dollars) and quite easy to use. There are videos on YouTube that will walk you through how to set it up and use it.
Carb Tracking Method 2
Another way to track carbohydrates is on the basis of servings you have for each meal. Because not all carbohydrates work the same way in your body, there are some that you should prioritize when tracking. Dr. Youngberg advises tracking your fruit and your starchy carbohydrate intake first. You will need to individualize these guidelines based on your own health status.
Starchy carbohydrates should be between one to three servings per meal. One serving is 15 grams so that is 15-45 grams per meal. To get an idea of how much this is, here are some examples of a 15 gram serving:
- ½ cup of cooked oatmeal
- 1 slice of whole wheat bread
- ⅓ cup rice or pasta
- ¼ baked potato
- ½ cup sweet corn, mashed potatoes or winter squash
If you are facing challenges like obesity or problems regulating your blood sugar, aim to stay at the lower end of the above allowances. Check your blood sugar frequently to track how these carbohydrates affect your numbers. Cut back if you notice spikes in blood sugar after three servings in the same meal. Remember to follow the guidelines on top-tier, second- and third-tier carbs. You’ll find them HERE.
You will also want to keep track of your fruit intake. Recommended amounts are one to two servings per meal. Just like the starchy carbohydrates, 15 gm of carbohydrates counts as one serving. Here are some examples:
- 1 small fresh fruit
- ½ cup fruit canned in it’s own juice
- 17 small grapes
- 1 cup of melon or berries
You will need to monitor your blood sugar to know how you are tolerating these carbohydrates and whether you need to eat at the upper or lower limits of these allowances.
There are also carbs you don’t need to count in the same way. Beans and legumes have carbohydrates, but because of their high fiber content they actually are very helpful in stabilzing blood sugars and don’t have to be counted toward your carbohydrate allowance. Non-starchy vegetables are so high in fiber and low in carbohydrates that you can eat them liberally without having to count them! You will want to aim for at least six servings of these each day and if you are still hungry at the end of a meal, reach for more of these. It’s pretty hard to overeat on these types of veggies. Remember that the cabbage family is an important part of this group. Kale, leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard, collards, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers and tomatoes are all part of the non-starchy vegetable group. Eat as many of these as you want and enjoy!
By balancing your intake of carbohydrates properly, you too can enjoy better health, increased longevity, more energy, and clearer thinking!
Hello Healthy, by Dr. Wes Youngberg