Won’t a High-Carb Plant-Based Diet Make Me Fat?

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The Truth About Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs

There’s a lot of debate out there about high-carb vs. low-carb diets and the potential benefits of one over the other, and it’s led to an equally large amount of confusion over whether carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are good or bad for you. This post isn’t meant to settle that debate but rather to shed some light on one of the main points of this confusion: the difference between whole and refined carbs.

At 4 calories per gram, carbs are found in a wide variety of foods, and they all tend to be lumped together in the high- vs. low-carb debate. But there’s a big difference in how whole carbs from foods like fruits, vegetables and brown rice and refined carbs like those in white bread, sugary desserts and sweetened drinks affect your body.

Refined Carbs: A Nutrient Wasteland

donut stack refined carbs sugarWith its high concentration of processed and fast foods, the standard Western diet has plenty of refined carbs. But these carbs start out as whole grains consisting of three parts:

  • Bran — Outer layer containing fiber, antioxidants and 50 to 80 percent of the minerals
  • Germ — Inner “seed” containing healthy fats, B vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants, including vitamin E
  • Endosperm — Food source for the developing seed, made up mostly of starches and some protein

Refined grains are stripped of one or more of these parts and the nutrients contained in them. The most refined products, such as white flour, have both bran and germ removed completely. When this happens, the grain loses:

  • 79 percent of the fiber
  • 70 percent of the minerals
  • 66 percent of the B vitamins
  • About 25 percent of the protein
  • Most of the antioxidants and phytonutrients

And, strangely enough, the calorie content actually increases about 7 percent!

The Fallacy of Enriched Grains

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If all that goes away when carbs are refined, then why do so many products say they’re ‘good sources’ of vitamins and minerals?”

The answer lies in the process of “enriching,” in which artificially manufactured nutrients are added back into refined grain products. This is why breakfast cereals with more sugar than soda can claim to be nutritious, and it’s another process that adds to the confusion about carbs. Only a select few nutrients are replaced when refined grains are enriched, and they’re often added in excess of their natural concentrations. So you get a lot of vitamins B1, B2 and B3 along with iron and folate, but you don’t get:

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin K
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Selenium
  • Fiber

fruity eclairs refined sugar

“Enriched” wheat, for example, has only about 5 percent of the vitamin E and 22 percent of the fiber of whole. The lack of these nutrients contributes to what refined carbs do to your body. Synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t used as efficiently as nutrients found in whole foods, partly because they’re delivered in the wrong proportions and aren’t accompanied by a full spectrum of supporting nutrients.

When you eat refined carbs, your body has to take vitamins and minerals from internal reserves to process and assimilate the food. Since you don’t get the majority of those nutrients back and the ones you do get come from unnatural sources, your reserves deplete over time, leaving you tired, sluggish and prone to getting sick. Other negative consequences include:

  • Higher triglycerides
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Increased cholesterol, especially very-low density particles (VLDL)

These effects put you at a higher risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that low-fiber diets may be linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Refined Carbs to Avoid

If you’re going to “cut carbs,” refined carbs are the ones you want to get rid of! Take a look at your diet, and take steps to eliminate:

  • Added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup
  • Refined and enriched flour
    • White bread products
    • White rice
    • White pasta
  • Boxed breakfast cereals
  • Pastries, snack cakes, donuts, muffins, etc.

The Whole Carb Story

Leaving carbohydrates intact preserves the bran, germ and endosperm as a complete package the way God intended. Think about it: A grain is really a seed. Seeds need a wide variety of nutrients to germinate and then grow and thrive into full plants. When you eat a whole grain, you get these nutrients in the right forms and the proper proportions to support the health of your whole body.

Switching from refined carbs to whole carbs means benefiting from the vitamins and minerals removed during refining plus a whole range of antioxidants, including flavanoids and polyphenols. These powerful phytochemicals aren’t found in processed foods and can’t adequately be added through “enriching” because their combinations in foods and interactions in the body are still largely a mystery. Studies suggest attempting to use isolated antioxidants to treat disease or improve health can actually have the opposite effect. Getting antioxidants from foods like whole grains and other whole carbohydrates, however, preserves the natural balance and allows these compounds to work as they should, protecting your body at a cellular level.

How does this “whole package” benefit your body?

  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Decreases inflammation
  • Lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Improves digestion and gut health

(I cover some of these benefits in more detail in my post, “5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains.”)

What Foods Are Whole Carbs?

whole grain bread whole carbsPretty much all whole plant foods contain at least some beneficial whole carbohydrates. Many are packed with a wide spectrum of nutrients but are low in calories, and all have the potential to improve your overall health when eaten regularly and in various combinations. The best way to think about the carbs in a plant-based diet is to stop picturing “carbs” as a food group and start thinking of food as food!

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, spelt, millet and amaranth are all good sources of whole carbs. So are leafy greens, crunchy veggies, starchy veggies, fruits and beans. Even nuts and seeds contain a small amount of carbs. Therefore, making whole plant foods the bulk of your diet means getting all the benefits of carbs without the negative side effects of refining.

Getting the Good Carbs in Your Diet

So what does all of this have to do with weight? Can you safely adopt a high-carb plant-based diet without seeing the scale go up?

Short answer: Yes! In fact, swapping out refined carbs with whole carbs can actually help you lose weight. How does that work? First, fiber contributes to the feeling of satiety, so if you eat unrefined carbs like those listed above, you feel full sooner and stay full longer. Second, whole carbs are much more complex than refined and take longer to be broken down by the body. This eliminates the spikes and drops in blood sugar you get after eating refined carbs, so you don’t feel “high” after you eat only to completely crash and get shaky and hungry an hour later. You wind up eating fewer calories without feeling deprived, making it easier to lose unwanted weight and maintain a healthy weight once you reach your goals.

Here are a few tips to get you started with a high-carb plant-based diet:fruit and veggie with asparagus

  • Clean the processed foods out of your pantry
  • Switch to whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Switch from white rice to brown
  • Snack on whole foods
    • Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc.
  • Increase your intake of low-calorie whole carbs
    • Leafy greens, veggies
  • Add beans to your meals in place of meats or processed mock meats

As for the high-carb vs. low-carb debate, don’t let it confuse you. It’s not whether or not you eat carbs but the type of carbs you eat that matters! A nutritious diet should contain a balance of whole, unrefined carbs; lean plant-based proteins; and healthy whole fats. Strike that balance, and you can enjoy your carbs in all their delicious unrefined forms without worrying about “getting fat.”

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5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains

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These robust plant foods offer a wealth of benefits

Grains. Love them or hate them, they’re the foundation of many traditional diets around the world and continue to be a staple in modern civilization. Most of the grains eaten today, however, have been refined to the point where they no longer provide the nutritional value that makes the original whole forms such an amazing staple food. These “empty calories” have given rise to the prevailing thought that grains are bad, carbohydrates are killing us and we all need to run in the other direction every time we see a bowl of rice.

Whole grains, however, are something we should be running to. Slowly but surely, the public eye is being opened to the fact that grains in their original, unrefined forms are among the healthiest foods out there. These grains are nourishing, power-packed choices that can be enjoyed at any meal. They’re delicious savory or sweet, with vegetables or fruit, tossed with herbs or seasoned with spices. However you like to prepare them, grains like rice, quinoa, millet, barley, amaranth, teff, corn and wheat can do amazing things for your health.

Better Heart Health

In How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger cites a study showing consumption of three servings of whole grains a day — which is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of cooked grains — reduced the risk of a heart attack by 15 percent and strokes by 25 percent. The Whole Grain Council reports higher numbers, showing a 25 to 28 percent risk reduction for heart disease and a 30 to 36 percent drop in stroke risk among those including whole grains in their diets.

stalk of whole grain oatsThe high fiber content of whole grains may have something to do with these benefits, according to Brenda Davis in her detailed compendium, Becoming Vegan. High fiber diets have been linked with a lower overall risk of cardiac events as well as a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the first place. Fiber combines with cholesterol-rich bile acids and lowers fatty acid synthesis in the liver, leading to lower blood levels of these potentially damaging substances. Fiber may also work to remove undesirable blood clots by breaking down the fibrin necessary for clots to form.

Methyl donors may be another reason why grains are so good at protecting heart health. When the body metabolizes the amino acid methionine, an intermediate compound called homocysteine is formed. Unless homocysteine is remethylated — that is, unless it gets a methyl group from another compound such as choline, betaine or inositol, all found in whole grains — it may lead to an increase in inflammation and promote adhesion within blood vessels. Inflamed blood vessels don’t heal well, and prolonged damage to the inner lining, called the endothelium, can promote clot formation and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Whole grains also contain vitamin B6, folic acid and zinc, which also play a role in controlling homocysteine levels.

Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Fiber is at least partly responsible for the statistics showing that consuming three servings of whole grains a day can lower diabetes risk by one third. A study by Harvard Medical School showed similar benefits in a group of 11 overweight and obese subjects consuming six to 11 servings of whole grains per day. Even with partially refined foods such as breads, pasta and baked goods included in the serving count, subjects experienced a 10 percent drop in fasting insulin, lower insulin secretions and greater glucose infusion into cells when compared to a similar diet containing refined grains.

When fiber-rich foods are ingested, the fiber delays absorption of both fat and carbohydrates, resulting in a more stable glucose response, which in turns reduces the need for high levels of insulin to normalize blood sugar. Since high blood sugar and excessive insulin production may both contribute to type 2 diabetes risk, it makes sense that whole grains appear to confer benefits. The Whole Grains Council places total risk reduction between 21 and 30 percent for people who consume whole grains.

Cancer Risk Reduction

Phenols, lignans and saponins are phytonutrients found in whole grains, and they’re superheroes in the fight against cell damage. Cells throughout the body are bombarded every day by artificial compounds in food and body care products, chemicals in the environment and the daily effects of metabolism. When left unchecked, the effects of these encounters have the potential to initiate cancer as cells mutate and multiply. Phytonutrients have antioxidant properties to prevent the damage from getting out of hand. The compounds found in whole grains are particularly effective against colorectal cancer. Eating three servings per day has the potential to lower the risk of the developing the disease by 20 percent.

Lignans also act as phytoestrogens, notes Dr. Greger in How Not to Die. These “plant estrogens” create a buffer to control high levels of estrogen associated with hormone-driven cancers, especially those of the breast and prostate. By docking on hormone receptors, phytoestrogens block the more aggressive estrogens believed to play a role in the development of these cancers. To get the benefits of lignans, however, you need a healthy gut. Whole grains contain only the precursors to lignans; a strong community of friendly gut bacteria is necessary to transform them into the final product.

Improved Digestion

whole grain brown rice in a jarEven before people knew what fiber was or how it worked, its role in digestive health was clear. A visit to the General Store & Apothecary Shop at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT, reveals a surprisingly large collection of products created to counteract the effects of inadequate fiber intake in a population that ate a great deal of cured meat and other high-fat, low-fiber fare. The same problems are evident in the large amount of shelf space modern pharmacies devote to digestive aids.

Unfortunately, Americans and other cultures eating predominantly Western-style diets continue to consume levels of fiber far below the recommended amounts, with average intakes hovering around 15 to 17 grams. Adequate Intake (AI) levels are set at 38 grams for men ages 19 to 50 and 25 grams for women in the same age bracket. Older men should consume at least 30 grams and older women at least 20 grams.

Those eating vegan diets that include whole grains average between 35 and 50 grams of fiber per day, and whole-food plant-based diets may provide up to 60 grams of fiber per day. Grains often figure predominantly in these eating plans. Fiber consumed at these levels provides enough food for the diverse community of bacteria that thrives in the human gut. As these bacteria break down strands of fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids that strengthen colon walls. Complex sugars called oligosaccharides act as prebiotics to provide more nourishment for these bacteria.

A strong colon is a healthy colon, and people who eat more fiber may be at a reduced risk for diverticulitis, irritable bowel disease, hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer. In fact, one study showed that consuming ten extra grams of fiber per day reduced the risk of this type of cancer by 10 percent.

Nutrient Content

Refining grains strips away the outer bran and germ, removing up to 80 percent of the healthful compounds that give the whole forms their benefits. When eaten in their unrefined states, grains provide a range of nutrients, including:

  • B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Each of these nutrients supports one or more essential bodily processes. Some, like selenium and zinc, act as antioxidants. Zinc is essential for over 100 enzymatic processes, and selenium is a critical component in thyroid hormone conversion. Many B vitamins support energy production and a healthy metabolism. Folate is essential for cell division, which is why pregnant women are encouraged to consume more of this nutrient. Magnesium balances out calcium to promote bone health. Other benefits for immunity and cell activity can also come from these vitamins and minerals.

Learn More About Whole Grain Benefits

The Vegan Health Guide: Whole Grains — Discover the health benefits of specific grains, why you should choose whole instead of refined and how to find the best grains when shopping!

Health Studies from the Whole Grains Council — Search by grain or health condition to find studies detailing the perks of including whole grains in your diet.

More Than Just Fiber? — This abstract discusses the “whole grain package,” suggesting the benefits of these foods may come from far more than the nutrients usually studied in isolation.

Lignans: The Linus Pauling Institute — An objective scientific look at the potential health effects of lignan consumption.


I’d love to hear about why you love whole grains. Share your favorite grains and recipes in the comments!

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