For many new plant-based eaters — especially those going cold turkey into a vegetarian or vegan diet — the refined carbohydrate trap is a very real and oftentimes invisible challenge. As you cut out foods — such as meat and dairy — your body still craves certain aspects of those foods including the hidden sugars and fats.
Refined carbohydrates, which are, in essence, processed foods — such as white bread, baked goods, and frozen meals — that offer empty calories and high amounts of sugar. These types of carbohydrates offer the same satiating “chewing” that meat provides, plus these products are filled with refined sugars that dairy products offer.
We’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of this question, but refined carbohydrates are unhealthy on a myriad of levels. They make your insulin spike as this hormone attempts to balance blood sugar levels. They satiate with empty calories leading to more adipose tissue, unwanted weight gain, and an increased risk of developing diabetes. They also have been linked to higher blood pressure, which can lead to heart conditions such as stroke and heart attack. Yet, refined carbs are also linked to other health issues that you may not think such as acne and mood swings.
With all of this said, a little knowledge goes a long way in regards to avoiding over consuming refined carbohydrates to replace those animal-based foods that you miss! The plant world offers a slew of protein-rich, fat-filled, and nutrient-dense foods that will only nurture and boost the overall health of your body. Specifically, you’ll want to focus on foods that are high in healthy fats — monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, small amounts of saturated fats, and the omegas — as well as plant-based foods that are rich in fiber and protein. This trifecta mixture will help subdue sugar cravings, keep you satiated, and also supplement your body with nutrients you’re no longer receiving from animal-based products.
What are Refined Carbohydrates?
They’re lovingly referred to in many circles as comfort foods and in others as diet saboteurs. Both of these names allude to the fact that refined carbohydrates are simply addictive and hard to kick.
First off, carbohydrates are not all bad for you. In fact, complex carbohydrates, which are found in many plant-based foods — including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — are an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet. Carbohydrate refers to “sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products.”
The important part of refined carbohydrates isn’t the “carbohydrate,” it’s the “refined,” also referred to as “simple.” These products include “sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients,” and they include a broad range of popular foods in the standard American diet such as “white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, and many breakfast cereals.”
Why Refined Carbohydrates Are Bad For You
When it comes to refined carbohydrates and you’re body, it’s mostly about your blood sugar. Due to the fact that refined carbohydrates have been essentially stripped of most nutrients and fiber that would slow digestion, these products “digest quickly and their high glycemic index causes unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels.”
After you’ve consumed a puff pastry or white flour dough pizza, your bloodstream gets completely bogged down and flooded with “sugar which triggers a surge of insulin to clear the sugar from your blood.” Insulin is a “hormone made by the pancreas that allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food that you eat for energy or to store glucose for future use,” as well as “keeps your blood sugar level from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).” Basically, insulin is not only the gate and key allowing sugar to enter our cells but it this vital hormone also helps our bodies store it for later energy use.
These blood sugar spikes not only leave you unsatiated causing more caloric intake and oftentimes unwanted weight gain but over time they can “lead to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.” If that wasn’t enough, refined carbs have also been linked to “high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity, mood disorders, and even suicide in teenagers.”
How Transitioning to Plant-Based Eating Increases Refined Carbohydrate Intake
When done right, a plant-based diet should be quite low in refined carbohydrates and much higher in healthy complex carbohydrates.
Not only are complex carbohydrates intact — meaning they haven’t been stripped of their nutrient-dense makeup including vitamins, minerals, and fiber — but those healthy “complex carbs such as vegetables, whole grains, and naturally sweet fruit digest slower, resulting in stable blood sugar and less fat accumulation.” Basically, complex carbs offer the exact opposite health benefits of refined carbohydrates.
With that said, for those transitioning into a plant-based diet, you’ll be giving up a handful of food items that are rich in fats and sugars such as dairy products, meat, poultry, and seafood, to name just a few. You’ll also be depriving your mouth of certain chewing sensations it has become accustomed to that indicate you’re eating a food that will satiate you. All of this is to say that when you kick animal-based products from your diet, your body will want to replace them with similarly sugar-rich and chewy products.
These products not only provide a non animal-based alternative — making you feel like you’re toeing the line of your new plant-based diet — they are easily accessible and pre-packaged at your local grocery store, generally cheaper, and will provide that satiation that your body seems to crave in the beginning.
This is why those that set out to practice plant-based eating can fall into the refined carbohydrate trap and ultimately wind up feeling even worse than before. Yet, there’s a simple remedy and that’s knowledge! All you need is a great resource for super simple, all-natural, vegan and refined carb-free recipes and ingredients that can be your go-to in the beginning of your plant-based diet.
Let’s get to exploring excellent substitutions to help you avoid that refined carbohydrate trap!
Out of all the foods you give up when switching to a fully plant-based diet, you’ll definitely get those hankerings for meat. Yet, you’re in luck! There are a handful of plant-based foods that can be prepared and cooked to mimic that of meat. In fact, there are thousands of restaurants that now serve meatless dishes using plant-based ingredients that are actually better tasting than meat dishes. Ever heard of the impossible burger? This is just one example of a plant-based food product sweeping the mainstream food scene and stealing the show!
When it comes to meat substitutes, mushrooms reign supreme. Not only do you have a variety to choose from, but they are highly nutritious and, when cooked, can reflect the texture, taste, and moisture of meat recipes. To start off, try out a portabella. These large, flat-headed fungi are super easy to cook — whether it’s sautéing, grilling, or baking — and they easily absorb other flavors, which means you can experiment with different sauces, oils, and spices to find the right taste for you!
One of the classic uses of portobello mushroom is as a steak substitute! This Portobello Mushroom Steaks recipe is not only 100 percent vegan, but it utilizes that meaty texture of 2 large whole Portobello’s, which has roughly 43 grams of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, only one gram of sugar, five grams of dietary fiber, and a helping of omega-6 fatty acids.
You may have been somewhat scared to try out this vegetable, yet take the dive and buy an eggplant. Even though I decided to put this veggie under the meat substitute section, eggplant has many other diverse uses. It can be a great lasagne noodle sub, a creative twist to hummus, or you can even fry it up to mimic bacon!
When you’re starting out, try going big with this Eggplant Burger recipe! A half eggplant — around one cup which is what this recipe calls for — not only will create a burger-reminiscent experience for you, but it also provides a broad palate of nutrients. One cup of cooked eggplant has 30.7 carbs, 2.5 grams of dietary fiber, a dose of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and only 3.2 grams of sugar.
The only other thing you need to consider is the bun on your burger. If you’re looking for low carb, opt to use hearty and naturally sweet cabbage leaves. On the other hand, you can also make your own refined carb-free and super healthy burger buns with this Chia Burger Bun recipe that uses chia seeds, buckwheat flour, ground flaxseeds, and millet.
Even if you don’t practice a plant-based diet — or are just beginning to transition — you’ve most likely already heard of or have been using coconut products. Coconuts are nutritious, healthy fat-rich, and offer a variety of creamy ingredients that can be used across the spectrum from baking to grilling. Yet, while we’re all accustomed to coconut oil, milk, cream, and dried flakes, coconut meat is somewhat newer to the scene.
In an article entitled The Other White Meat: Why You Should Eat Coconut for Strong Muscles and More, Heather McClees, a certified nutritionist and health writer for One Green Planet, explains the benefits coconut meat:
“Along with popular options like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, soybeans (edamame), peas, chia, hemp, tempeh, quinoa, tofu, and vegan protein powders, we should also be considering adding another food to our plates to pump up our muscles: coconut. That’s right — the tropical fruit most of us relate to just an exotic healthy fat source is actually packed with nutrients that improve lean muscle mass and support the overall body.”
As well as these wonderful health benefits, coconut meat is also a great meat substitute, especially in seafood recipes. The texture and look of coconut meat replicate your favorite shellfish that you’ve given up for the cause. This Young Coconut Ceviche is a wonderful and simple young coconut meat-based recipe to start out with. Plus, one cup of coconut meat offers 49.7 grams of carbs, 7.2 grams of dietary fiber, a healthy dose of saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acid, with only five grams of sugar!
This may be the most difficult part of your diet to supplement. There’s nothing quite like that warm, white-flour bread that’s served before a meal at a restaurant or that heaping pile of pasta with your favorite creamy or tomato sauce on top. While your taste buds may be telling you that you need a bowl of sugary cereal in the morning or that puff pastry treat at the coffee shop, your body is silently screaming at you to stop. Plant-based foods can come to the rescue to help you beat these cravings! Here are a few great replacements for three of the most popular flour-based refined carbohydrate staples in your kitchen.
Pasta has been a staple in the American diet for as long as I can remember. Growing up, we’d have a bowl of highly processed, white flour-based pasta almost every week. Yet, I never understood that I was basically consuming a bowl of refined carbs and sugars. Luckily, I realized I could still have my traditional bowl of pasta with a bit of twist to that “traditional” part. While you can find refined carbohydrate-free pasta made with highly nutritious flour alternatives — such as buckwheat, brown rice flour, teff, amaranth, and even arrowroot — you can increase your nutrient intake and decrease caloric intake by using veggies to make pasta.
For instance, spaghetti squash naturally cooks up to look like spaghetti. This is one of my personal favorite alternatives, as it has a slightly sweet flavor that pairs like a gem with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper — the simple concoction that got me through college on a budget! With that said, you can get a bit more complex, such as this traditional Spaghetti Squash with Alfredo Sauce recipe. One spaghetti squash, as is required for this recipe, generally is equated to about two cups, which is perfect for two people, and offers around 72 grams of carbs, around 5 grams of dietary fiber, a healthy dose of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and only eight grams of sugar!
I have to admit that sticky rice — also called white rice — was one of the hardest of the grains for me to kick! There’s just something about that stickiness that makes you want more — probably those high levels of starch, which is the agent that gives it that stickiness in the first place. With that said, I was pleased to learn that there were lots of alternative rice options that were healthier!
When it came to finding one to always have in my pantry, I landed on brown rice.
Not only is brown rice super nutrient-dense — one cup of brown rice has 45.8 grams of carbs, 3.5 grams of dietary fiber, a helping of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and is rich in calcium (19.5 grams) and magnesium (85.8 grams) — but it’s also a great substitute for sticky rice if you add a plant-based sticky agent such as vinegar, aquafaba water, or a flaxseed egg. While you can do pretty much anything with brown rice, this Basic Brown Rice recipe is a wonderful place to start in order to get your equilibrium around this type of grain!
Breakfast cereals are one of the most potent sources of refined carbohydrates. They are generally loaded with white flour and thick with refined sugars such as high fructose corn syrup or simple table sugar. If you decide to go with one of the healthier brands, you’ll be paying out the pocket for it.
Swap out that morning cereal for oatmeal! Oatmeal happens to be one of the wonderful perks of plant-based eating. It’s not only incredibly delicious, can be eaten warm or cold, comes in many exclusively gluten-free brands, but it also happens to be one of the best natural foods that’s great for blood sugar and heart health. An ounce of oatmeal has around 19 grams of carbs, 2.8 grams of dietary fiber, a serving of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and around .4 grams sugar. My favorite oatmeal recipes are overnight oats such as this Warm Blueberry Overnight Oats recipe. While you can reheat overnight oats in the morning, eating them cold reminds me of those bowls of cold cereal I used to devour!
With that said, be very wary about quick cook oats or packaged breakfast oatmeal. Oftentimes, these are laden with unnecessary sugar. The best way to avoid these unwanted added ingredients is to buy your oat either raw or in bulk and simply make your oatmeal at home and add whatever ingredients you want! Avoiding processed and packaged versions will give you complete control over what you put in your body!
Plant-Based Dairy-Free Substitutes
When it comes to plant-based dairy-free substitutes, it’s important to read the label of any processed or packaged item. Oftentimes, while the product may be completely vegan, it also has high amounts of refined carbs, especially sugars. This is where making your own dairy-free milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter comes in super handy. You not only have complete control over how much of certain ingredients are used but also what type of flour and sugar is used.
Yet, why is dairy so bad to begin with?
Mass produced dairy is not only generally sourced unethically, but, due to natural agents, cows milk-derived dairy products can also be addictive. Every wonder why you simply can’t say no to that cream cheese on that bagel or that frothy milk-based latte? It’s all about the casein, a component of milk that has been nicknamed “dairy crack.” On top of that, dairy cows “are given artificial hormones, antibiotics, and GMO (genetically modified) feed, which helps increase milk production, lower the risk of disease and sickness in the cow, and ultimately save money for the dairy farmer,” yet when you drink cow’s milk, “your body is ingesting these harmful agents.”
Nut-based milk alternatives have become my all-time favorite item in my fridge! While I started out with purchasing my almond, oat, and coconut milk at the store, I quickly became aware that many of these were enriched with sugar and a bunch of other preservative ingredients that I wasn’t too fond of.
This is when I started making my own!
Not only did I find this to be cheaper, but I was in complete control of what went into my milk. For instance, the only thing in my almond milk these days is water, vanilla extract, and almonds. Plus, after you wring out the nutrients and flavors of your ground up nuts, coconut, or oats, the pulp is a great ingredient that can be used to make granola, nutritious cereals, or can even be used for baking. Therefore, your alternative milk can turn into a zero-waste recipe!
When selecting the right alternative milk, you may want to begin with small containers from your local grocery store. After you’ve figured out which one is right for you, I’d recommend venturing to make your own at home! Here are a few at home recipes to get you going: Homemade Unsweetened Coconut Milk, Homemade Soy Milk, Almond Milk, Raw Cacao Milk,
Along the same lines as dairy-free milk, store-bought vegan cheese can also be riddled with processed ingredients included refined carbs and refined sugars. These products are also filled with preservatives so that they last longer on the shelf. When it comes to substituting your cow-based cheese with nut-based cheese, I highly recommend making your own.
While you will need to invest the time in order to make your vegan cheese, the payback is a thousand times better! Not only will you avoid unwanted refined carbs, but I promise your DIY cheese will taste better than store-bought. Plus, you can get creative and add whatever spices and herbs you like and use nuts that are typically found in store-bought versions. For instance, if you’re working to cut out refined carbohydrates, you may want to focus on a fattier nut, such as this Smoked Coconut Gouda or this Baked Macadamia Feta. On the other hand, you can also focus on protein-rich cheeses — such as this 5-Ingredient Almond Feta Cheese — or sweeter, naturally sugar-rich cashew-based desert cheeses — such as this Extra Sharp Raw Cheddar Cheese Ball, this Roasted Garlic and Fresh Herb Cream Cheez, or this super simple Sliceable Cashew Cheese.
The trick to vegan butter is fat. In fact, the trick to any high-quality, delicious butter is fat. While there are different ways to go about making vegan butter, you’ll always want to make sure you’re using high-quality fatty ingredients. For instance, this homemade vegan butter recipe calls for your choice of plant-based milk, extra virgin coconut oil, and olive oil (or sunflower). On the other hand, this Palm-Oil Free, Soy-Free Butter recipe calls for cashews to mix in with that coconut and olive oil.
Once you’ve got the hang of that traditional vegan butter, you can take time to get creative!
Much like DIY milk and cheese recipes, the great thing about making your own butter is that you can add whatever flavors you’d like. Here are a few creative and delicious vegan butter recipes to try out: Golden Garlic Butter, Apple Butter, Coconut Butter, Garlicky Chive Blossom Butter, or this White Wine Garlic Butter.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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