- September 8, 2022
- by Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
- 0 Comments
The Best Plant-Based Carbs to Include in Your Diet
Carbs have gotten a bad reputation, but they’re important for many reasons! Find some of the best plant-based carbs to include in your diet.
Plant-based carbohydrates are abundant and offer a variety of essential vitamins and minerals that contribute to a healthy diet.
However, carbohydrates have recently become the spotlight of many trendy diets, with most demonizing this macronutrient as one to be feared.
This over-simplified message has created confusion about how carbs fit into a healthy diet. This has led many people to miss out on the nutritious benefits that many carbohydrate sources provide.
And since most carbohydrates are plant based, this often leads to many low-carb dieters skimping on their daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Let’s take a closer look at why plant-based carbs should be one of the first foods you add to your plate.
What are plant-based carbs?
Carbohydrates primarily fall into three categories: fiber, starches, and sugar. Most sources of carbohydrates are found in plants.
These include whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Additionally, carbohydrates are found in foods that aren’t vegan, including dairy products like milk and yogurt.
Plants contain varied amounts of carbohydrates depending on the type. Some are higher in natural plant sugars like fructose and others are higher in fiber, a type of carbohydrate.
To better understand plant-based carbohydrates, it helps to understand the three different types of carbs.
- Starches are found primarily in whole grains and root vegetables. These compounds are made up of a group of glucose (sugar) molecules known as polysaccharides.
- Fiber is found in most plants in varied quantities. There are multiple types of dietary fiber, all with a common characteristic: They cannot be fully digested in the gastrointestinal tract. Despite this, fiber offers multiple health benefits. Additionally, it’s recommended that we eat at least 28 grams of fiber per day.
- Sugars are a form of simple carbohydrates found naturally in multiple foods including fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
Plant-based foods can offer one or more of each type of carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates, weight gain, and low-carbohydrate diets
In recent years, carbohydrates have been demonized as causing weight gain. Unfortunately, this myth has led many people to severely restrict nutrient-dense foods due to their carbohydrate content.
There’s no science-based reason to believe that eating carbohydrates results in weight gain. In fact, research shows that weight loss is possible no matter what type of diet someone chooses (low fat or low carb).
Additionally, unnecessarily restricting carbohydrates can have unintended consequences if proper precautions aren’t taken to ensure nutrients found in plant-based carbohydrate sources are replaced in the diet.
One study found an association between low carbohydrate diets during pregnancy and neural tube defects.
The conclusion? People following a low-carbohydrate diet were eating an inadequate amount of folic acid from fortified foods that are higher in carbohydrates.
Nutrient density of plant-based carbohydrates
Not all plant-based carbohydrate sources are equivalent when it comes to their nutrient density. The term “nutrient density” points to the amount of nutrients you get within a small amount of food.
Plant-based carbs come in many forms, with some being highly processed while others are minimally processed. These differences in preparation can result in significant nutrient differences while also influencing calorie and nutrient density.
Minimally processed plant-based sources of carbs include whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Nuts and seeds also contain carbohydrates, but in minimal quantities. These foods are not only good sources of carbohydrates, they’re also rich in other nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals.
Highly processed plant-based carbohydrate foods like refined grains, fried foods such as fried potatoes, and foods with added sugars like sweetened beverages, bakery products, and candies are less nutritious than their minimally processed counterparts.
When adjusting your plant-based diet to incorporate nutrient-dense foods, it’s best to make swaps in the diet when it comes to carbohydrate-containing foods.
By swapping in nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources in place of calorie-dense carbohydrate sources, you not only increase healthful nutrients like fiber and others, but you also reduce less healthful nutrients like added sugar.
These plant-based carbs swaps can help you get started:
|Instead of…||Replace with…|
|Refined grains (white breads, cereals with added sugar, etc.)||Whole grains (whole grain bread, whole grain cereals, etc.)|
|Salty, fried snacks (potato chips, etc.)||Baked snacks (baked chips, etc.)|
|Sweetened fruit juices or sweetened dried fruit||Whole fruits|
|Sweets (cakes, cookies, etc.)||Dark chocolate or chocolate dipped fruit|
|Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, etc.)||Water or sparkling water with fruit or herbs added|
5 of the best plant-based carbohydrate sources
With so many plant-based sources of carbohydrates to choose from, it’s hard to know which are best. Many options exist that provide various levels of nutrients in addition to carbohydrates. These can all be healthy options to add to your diet.
I’m sharing my top five sources of plant-based carbohydrates.
Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are not only a source of plant-based carbs, they’re also a good source of plant-based protein.
Their high fiber content makes them a filling addition to your diet. And their versatility make it easy to incorporate them in a variety of recipes.
Beans and legumes are an integral part of many healthy diet patterns and have shown to have positive health benefits, including for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health.
Additionally, beans may play a role in weight and body composition. One study found a link between bean intake and reduced waist circumference and lower body fat percentage in women with moderate to high intakes.
Whole grains are a significant source of carbohydrates and other essential nutrients like B vitamins, fiber, and magnesium. Like beans, whole grains also provide plant-based protein.
Their fiber and protein content can help to make a meal more satisfying by helping to fill you up and keep you full longer.
Additionally, eating whole grains is associated with multiple health benefits. Research shows that replacing refined grains with whole grains in the diet is associated with improvements in cholesterol, blood sugar, and markers of inflammation.
Fruits are often shunned for their sugar content, but these naturally occurring fruit sugars come with many other health-benefiting compounds.
Whole fruits are a good source of fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins and minerals.
Research shows that eating fruit as part of a healthy diet pattern is associated with many health benefits. These include benefits to digestive and cardiovascular health as well as the reduced risk for certain cancers.
Additionally, research shows that whole fruit and vegetable intake may play a role in weight management.
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, winter squash, and root vegetables like parsnips and beets are an excellent source of many nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium plus fiber and phytochemicals.
These vegetables are often the first to go when cutting carbohydrates.
This is mostly because many of the common preparation methods for starchy vegetables (e.g. fries, potato chips) increase the calorie density and add additional, less healthful nutrients like salt and saturated fat.
However, by themselves, starchy vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available. Opting to prepare these vegetables in healthful ways can ensure you’re getting the most from these plant-based carbs.
Like the name implies, non-starchy vegetables are those that are lower in total carbohydrates.
These include vegetables like leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and many others like green beans, squash, zucchini, mushrooms, leeks, and tomatoes, to name a few.
Non-starchy vegetables are lower in total carbohydrates, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t packed with nutrients. This group of vegetables is incredibly nutrient-dense providing essential vitamins and minerals that contribute to total health.
And, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, close to 90 percent of the population doesn’t eat the recommended amount of vegetables daily.
Given this, it’s likely that most of us could benefit from upping our vegetable intake from all categories—starchy and non-starchy.
Helpful plant-based recipes
Looking for recipes that feature these nutritious plant-based carbohydrates? Try one of these tasty options.
- Sunrise Orange Banana Muffins
- High-Protein Cherry Crepes
- Creamy Vegan Rice Pilaf
- Gluten-Free Power Balls
- Air-Fryer Butternut Squash
- Blueberry Banana Smoothie Bowl
- Easy Mango Oatmeal
- Breakfast Fruit Tacos
- Vegetarian Rice Bowl with Chickpeas & Tomato
- Italian Lupini Bean Salad with Crushed Pistachios
The bottom line
Carbohydrates often have a bad reputation when it comes to diet, but plant-based sources of carbohydrates are both nutrient-dense and filling.
Many contribute essential nutrients and diets that include these healthful carbohydrate sources have shown to be associated with positive health outcomes.
Aim for variety and abundance when choosing which plants to eat. Variety can help to ensure you’re eating as many nutrients as possible and abundance to help you meet the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
- A study published in JAMA in 2018
- A study published in Birth Defects Research in 2018
- A study published in Nutrients in 2021
- A study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2020
- A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2020
- A study published in Nutrients in 2018
- A study published in Nutrients in 2020
Find this post helpful? At no additional cost to you, you can support the maintenance of running this site by using my Amazon affiliate links to shop. Thank you so much.
And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to get updates delivered straight to your inbox! Also, download my free 3-day vegan meal plan.
Want to go shopping with a dietitian? Here’s your chance! I just opened up my very own storefront, full of plant-based meal plans, grocery lists, recipe books, and more!