Venturing into a new diet can be overwhelming, especially as it generally requires cutting certain categories of foods from your normal regimen. It may be dairy, it may meat, or, one of the most popular of the diet cutting options, carbohydrates. Even though carbohydrates are an essential part of our diet — providing us with a source of energy, improved digestion, and even improved heart health — it’s important to make sure you’re getting the right type of carbohydrates referred to as whole carbohydrates. Whole carbs are unprocessed, which means they contain more natural fiber, whereas carbohydrates that have been processed loose that natural fiber. So maybe you want to eat a plant-based low-carb diet? Here’s what you should know.

Yet, whether it’s for weight loss or management, health-related issues, or simply a new diet you’re trying out, if you’re looking to cut carbohydrates it’s important to know what carbohydrates are, some of the dangers of reducing carbohydrate intake, and how to replace carbohydrates with either healthy carbs or other nutrient-rich plant-based foods.

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Carbohydrates 101

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When we think of carbs our minds instantly turn to soft, fluffy bread, pasta, and delicious snack items such as crackers and chips. While these items fall under the carbohydrate umbrella, so do a variety of healthy food products. Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (alongside protein and fat) —referring to the way in which the human body gets energy and calories — and they are found in starches, fibers, and sugars that reside in vegetables, fruits, grains, and milk products. Carbohydrates are essential for a healthy functioning body. They “provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles,” as well as provide an important resource for brain function, specifically mood and memory.

There are two types of carbohydrates that are differentiated by their chemical makeup. Simple carbohydrates, also called monosaccharides, are made of one sugar include galactose and fructose found in fruit and milk products. Complex carbohydrates, also called disaccharides, are created of two or more sugars and are found in “sucrose (table sugar), lactose (from dairy) and maltose (found in beer and some vegetables).

Dangers of Cutting Carbohydrates

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Removing any of the three essential macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein, and fat — from your diet can pose health risks. This is especially true when it comes to eating a low-carb diet. So, what will happen if you go cold turkey on those glucose-filled food items? Let’s take a look.

Hypoglycemia

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We begin with the most drastic of the health risks. Hypoglycemia is not a disease, but simply a symptom of abnormally low levels of sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. Symptoms include increased hunger, shaking or trembling, dizziness, irritability, and sweating. While hypoglycemia is often related to larger conditions, such as insulin resistance or diabetes, you can also become hypoglycemic if you refuse your body a source of glucose. The most common source of glucose is carbohydrates. Therefore, before cutting carbs or eating low-carb, make sure you’ve supplemented your source glucose, as well as spoken with your doctor about the change.

Brain Fog

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The human brain is constantly grasping for energy, estimated at 20 percent of your total reserves and up to 70 percent “of total glucose consumption by the whole body during resting mode.” With that, the brain also prefers to use glucose or sugar as its primary source of energy sucking up around 120 grams of glucose in one day. Yet, due to the “unique blood-brain barrier feature and its inability to store excess fuel,” the brain requires “a continuous glucose supply in order to sustain all activities.” Therefore, if you ever starve yourself completely of those glucose reserves your brain may fight back with headaches and cognitive slowness, also referred to as a brain fog.

Digestive Discomfort

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If you’re substituting those missing carbohydrates with fiber-rich foods, then you can easily avoid this unfortunate side effect. Yet, for those that haven’t done their homework and are lacking the necessary fiber, cutting carbohydrates may lead to digestive discomfort, more commonly, constipation.

Healthy Plant-Based Carbohydrate SubstitutesVegan Chickpea Turnip Meatballs

Chickpea Turnip Meatballs/One Green Planet

While carbohydrates are an essential element for the human body, it’s important to understand that these macronutrients are, in essence, sugar-heavy and therefore should be consumed conscientiously. This means focusing on carbohydrates that provide nutrient and fiber-rich content while falling on the lower end of the glycemic index, a system that measures the speed that food causes sugar levels to rise.

Yet, if you do decide to reduce carbs, how do you go about substituting the right items so that your body is still receiving the essential macronutrients while reducing the sugar?

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Nutrients and Fiber versus Sugar

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Labeling carbs as good or bad seems to demonize the whole macronutrient category all-together, therefore, instead of seeing good and bad let’s take a look at nutrient and fiber-rich versus sugar-rich. Sugar rich carbohydrates include those that are high in calories, refined sugars and grains, and saturated fat. Basically, avoid any highly-processed carbohydrates such as pastries, fast food, soda, and white flour products. Most importantly, make sure the carbs you incorporate are completely devoid of dangerous trans fats. Try incorporating substitutes that are nutrient-rich, such as sprouted grain or whole wheat, as well as fiber-rich, such as quinoa, buckwheat, and beetroots.

Nutrient-Rich Tea for Sweet BeveragesDairy-Free Sage and Black Tea Latte

Sage and Black Tea Latte/One Green Planet

Sweetened beverages, such as soda, is one of the easiest ways to get empty calories. Soda has almost no nutritional value, while dumping copious amounts of sugar into your system. Therefore, while it’s one of the easiest high-carb and sugar products, it’s also one of the best avenues to begin cutting down on unhealthy carbohydrates. Swap out your daily soda with a sweet tea option, such as this Sage and Black Tea Latte that is enriched with healthy fat, herb-derived antioxidants, and a burst of black tea caffeine or this gut-friendly, low-sugar Lychee and Kombucha Spritz.

Sprouted Grain Bread for White BreadRaw Sprouted Wheat Berry Pastry Dough

Raw Sprouted Wheat Berry Pastry Dough/One Green Planet

You may have heard of sprouted products, but they are somewhat new to the health world. When a plant sprouts from a seedling, it requires energy (such as a human baby or child experiencing growth spurts). The sprout will utilize much of its glucose (or sugar) stores in order to sprout. Sprouted grain items are harvested after the plant has utilized most of that glucose reserve, therefore making it much lower on the glycemic index. Sprouted grains can be purchased at the grocery store or you can sprout them yourself. Try making your own sprouted grain bread using this Raw Sprouted Wheat Berry Pastry Dough.

Protein-Rich Snacks for High-Carb SnacksCardamom Pistachio Energy Bites

Cardamom Pistachio Energy Bites/One Green Planet

If you can’t avoid snacking throughout the day, try incorporating protein-rich snacks over carbohydrate snacks. Swap out that banana, apple, or crackers for a handful of nuts. Nuts are naturally high in healthy fat and protein, as well as low in carbohydrates. A few of the best nut options include almonds, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. Yet, raw nuts can grow boring rather quickly, therefore, try creating nut-based snacks such as these Apricot Bars or these Cardamom Pistachio Energy Bites.

For a host of carbohydrate substitute recipes, 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!

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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