Many people have a fair idea about the types of food that are high in carbohydrates: either those that are obviously full of sugar (which could include confectionary, most fruit, jams, many soft drinks and so on) or those that are starchy in nature (such as pasta, rice or bread).
Carbohydrates can be generally divided into two categories: simple (i.e. sugary) and complex (i.e. starchy or dietary fibre). Carbohydrates can be very effective as a source of energy but there are various reasons that mean people might want to reduce their carb intake or to follow a low carb diet (which we will discuss in detail later).
Many vegan-friendly foods are naturally low in carbohydrates, with some fruits and many vegetables falling into that category. If you want to learn more about the different types of carbohydrates and the reasons people choose a low carb diet, scroll down to the relevant section in the article. For those who know about the potential benefits of reducing the amount carbs they consume, here are the top low-carb vegan foods.
Note that this list relates to the carb content of various foodstuffs, but there are various other factors that should be considered when planning a healthy diet, including the glycaemic index (GI) of foods, which will be discussed later.
Top Low-Carb Vegan Foods
There is no widely accepted definition about what constitutes a ‘low carbohydrate’ food, but here we have listed the main vegan-friendly foods that contain less than 10g of carbs per 100g of the food in question. Most (non-dried) fruit and veg would fall within the low or moderately low level of carbohydrates, while most foods that are obviously sugary or starchy in nature, or which are largely made up of cereals are likely to be high in carbs (we give examples of very high-carb foods later in the article).
As a general rule, nuts and seeds are low in carbohydrates, as are many vegan meat substitutes, such as seitan, tofu and Quorn. When it comes to vegetables, you are best sticking to leafy greens and those high in water. Speaking generally again, veg that grow under the ground are typically higher in carbs, with items, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, swedes and carrots ones to eat in moderation when on a low carb vegan diet.
Here are a selection of vegan foods with the lowest levels of carbs (the amounts given are based on 100g of the food in question).
|Food Name||Carbs (g)||Energy (kcal)||Energy (kJ)||Starch (g)||Sugars (g)|
|Mushrooms, oyster, raw||Tr||8||35||Tr||Tr|
|Pitted olives, green, in brine, drained||Tr||103||422||0||Tr|
|Seaweed, Irish moss, raw||Tr||8||33||0||Tr|
|Seaweed, nori, dried, raw||Tr||136||577||0||Tr|
|Curly kale, boiled in unsalted water||1||26||110||0.1||0.9|
|Rhubarb, stems only, stewed without sugar||1.2||14||59||0||1.2|
|Radish, red, flesh and skin, raw||1.4||12||50||Tr||1.4|
|Avocado, Hass, flesh only||1.8||171||703||Tr||0.4|
|Aubergine, flesh and skin, boiled in unsalted water||1.8||14||59||0.2||1.6|
|Courgette, boiled in unsalted water||1.8||15||62||0.1||1.7|
|Runner beans, boiled in unsalted water||1.9||16||68||0.3||1.6|
|Okra, boiled in unsalted water||1.9||16||69||0.5||1.4|
|Asparagus, roasted in rapeseed oil||2||35||147||Tr||2|
|Coconut milk, reduced fat, retail||2||79||328||0.9||1.1|
|Leeks, boiled in unsalted water||2.5||16||68||0.2||2.3|
|Coconut milk, retail||3.3||169||697||1.3||2|
|Courgette, roasted in rapeseed oil||3.6||39||162||0.2||3.4|
|Brussels sprouts, boiled in unsalted water||4.2||32||135||0.3||3.7|
|Peas, mange-tout, boiled in unsalted water||4.2||32||137||0.5||3.7|
|Leeks, roasted in rapeseed oil||4.5||41||171||0.3||4.2|
|Sweetcorn, baby, boiled in unsalted water||4.6||31||133||0.8||3.8|
|Pineapple, flesh only, raw, weighed with skin and top||5||20||86||0||5|
|Butternut squash, boiled in unsalted water||5.1||24||100||Tr||5.1|
|Aubergine, flesh and skin, roasted in rapeseed oil||5.2||62||260||0.6||4.6|
|Almonds, whole kernels||5.3||554||2292||0.8||4.5|
|Sweetcorn, baby, stir-fried in rapeseed oil||5.4||84||351||0.9||4.5|
|Swede, flesh only, boiled in unsalted water||5.8||26||109||0.1||5.7|
|Beans, edamame, frozen, boiled in unsalted water||6.5||142||593||3.9||2.6|
|Grapefruit, flesh only, raw||6.9||34||145||0||6.9|
|Butternut squash, baked||8.4||39||168||Tr||8.4|
|Kiwi fruit, flesh only, raw||8.6||44||185||0.3||8.3|
|Papaya, flesh only, raw||9.5||44||186||0||9.5|
|Plums, dessert, flesh and skin, raw||9.7||41||177||0||9.7|
|Nectarines, flesh and skin, raw||9.8||43||184||0||9.8|
*Data used in the table has been collected from McCance and Widdowson’s “The Composition of Foods Integrated Dataset 2019″, which was compiled for Public Health England (PHE). Note that these are to be viewed as estimates and variations will inevitably occur with various foodstuffs based on how they were grown, prepared and cooked.
Of course, knowing how carb-heavy a particular food is only tells part of the story. Next up we will delve a little deeper into the world of carbs and explain what they are, whether there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbs, and the reasons people might decide to reduce their intake of carbohydrates through their diet.
What Are Carbohydrates & Why Do We Need Them?
From a scientific perspective, carbohydrates are molecules containing atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, with most examples of carbohydrate molecules containing double the number of hydrogen atoms as oxygen atoms.
From a nutritional point of view, carbohydrates represent one of the three macronutrients in human diets (alongside protein and fat). Carbohydrates in the diet provide a source of energy with the NHS’s Eatwell Guide suggesting that starchy foods should make up around a third of a well-balanced diet. Whilst low-carb diets may be quite popular, it is worth remembering that all mainstream scientific, medical and nutritional advice generally recommends something along those lines.
Forms of Carbohydrates
While it is commonly asserted that there are two forms of carbohydrates (namely sugar and starch), there is also a third type of carbohydrate found in food: fibre. Fibre has many positive benefits (including potentially lowering the risk of heart disease, strokes and bowel cancer), though it only provides a small amount of energy in comparison to the starch or sugar: according to the British Nutrition Foundation, each gram of fibre contributes 2 kcal (8.4kJ) of energy. This compares to approximately 3.75kcal (16kJ) of energy provided per gram of sugar or starch.
Whether consumed as sugar, starch or fibre, ultimately, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (a very simple, monosaccharide sugar) to be used by the body for energy. In the absence of carbohydrates, the body begins to use fat and protein as energy sources instead… and this is what has to led to various diets over the years, including the Atkins Diet and the Keto Diet.
Being ‘Carbohydrate Aware’
Most nutritionists and food scientists would assert that attempting to remove carbohydrates from the diet entirely or almost entirely is not advisable. And, many experts would suggest that some of the claims that reducing carbs can reduce body weight are simply myths.
For instance, the Association of UK Dietitians argue that weight loss that can be seen to occur after a drastic reduction in carb intake can often be a result of fluid loss rather than a reduction in fat. They suggest being ‘carbohydrate aware’ and that ensuring food is served in sensible portion sizes is more useful and that restricting one food group is likely to lead to an imbalanced diet.
Reasons for Choosing a Low Carb Vegan Diet
People may choose to reduce the amount of carbs they consume for a number of reasons. This could be for direct or indirect health reasons (e.g. diabetes) or simply to reduce weight for cosmetic reasons.
People who want to lose weight might either turn to a low carb diet, such as the Atkins Diet or the Keto Diet, or they might just look to carb reduction as the easiest way to reduce the overall number of calories they consume each day to create a calorie deficit (so that they are using more energy than they consume).
People with diabetes need to be particularly aware of the amount (and type) of energy they are consuming. Many people believe that a low carb diet can actually cure type 2 diabetes (though not type 1).
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition that means the pancreas is not able to produce enough insulin to effectively regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes and the condition needs to be managed by monitoring glucose levels in the blood and either consuming more energy if the blood sugar level is too low or injecting insulin if the blood sugar level is too high.
Many people with type 1 diabetes find that sticking to a low carb diet (and especially minimising foods with high sugar content) can help them manage their condition more effectively.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes, meanwhile, can be seen more as an intolerance to sugar or a resistance to insulin, and hence is classified as a metabolic disorder. As mentioned, there have been many examples of people with type 2 diabetes having put the condition into remission by following a low carb (or more generally a low calorie) diet.
Research funded by Diabetes UK has shown some very promising results for those with type 2 diabetes. There is also plenty in the way of anecdotal evidence available from the diabetes community who interact at diabtetes.co.uk.
Indirect Health Reasons
A low carb diet can help to reduce weight if it means a person is consuming fewer calories than they are burning up. In this case, aside from the cosmetic benefit of looking thinner, there are potential health benefits too if it means an obese or overweight person is able to lose enough weight to go into a healthier weight category. This is likely to have positive effects on blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular illness and general energy levels.
Whatever the reason for you wanting to reduce the amount of carbs you are eating, it is always advisable to speak to your doctor prior to making any major changes to your diet.
Good Carbs Versus Bad Carbs: Complex Versus Simple
Having said that, not all carbs are created equal. As mentioned previously, carbohydrates fall broadly into two categories: the complex, long-chain carbohydrates that are typically found in starchy and cereal-based foods and those that contain dietary fibre, and the simple, short-chain carbohydrates that are found in foods containing significant amounts of sugars. But why are the complex carbs classified by some nutritionists, dieticians or authors of diet books as ‘good’ and simple carbs as ‘bad’ and is such a division fair?
The concept of “good” and “bad” carbs is mainly based on how fast different carbohydrates are absorbed into the body after being consumed, and whether the food containing the carbohydrate in question offers other nutritional benefits, or if they are essentially just providing calories.
If the body contains more energy than it uses up, it stores the excess energy (mostly as fat) and thus causes weight gain. On the flip side, if someone does not have enough glucose in their body at any point, their blood sugar can become too low, otherwise known as hypoglycaemia. Understanding the types and quantities of carbs you are consuming can be useful for people in general, but it can be life-saving for people with diabetes.
What Is the Glycaemic Index (GI) of Foods?
When assessing whether carbohydrates are good or bad for you, you could do worse than to focus on the glycaemic index (GI) of the food in question. The GI of foods is a measure of how quickly a given food can affect your blood sugar levels when that food is consumed (not in combination with other foods).
A scale of 0-100 is used, with pure sugar, which causes an almost instant rise in blood sugar, having a GI ranking of 100. Unprocessed foods with high levels of fat and/or fibre typically have the lowest GIs.
Foods that have a high GI are broken down swiftly by the body and result in an increase to the blood sugar that is very rapid. As well as sugary foods and soft drinks, white, starchy foods like white bread, white rice and potatoes also have high GI ratings.
Low GI foods, on the other hand, are broken down more slowly and hence release their energy into the blood at a slower rate, resulting in less dramatic increases in blood sugar levels. But while it would be fine to base you carb choices on the GI, this is not something that is currently given on food labels. There are plenty of low-GI cookbooks out there though, and online resources that can help you ascertain the GI of a given food (for instance this GI Index from The University of Sydney).
What About the Glycaemic Load (GL)?
As if it wasn’t hard enough getting to grips with good carbs and bad carbs and the concept of GI, the newer kid on the carby block is glycaemic load (GL). Some felt that the GI alone could be misleading as it doesn’t fairly reflect the real-world impact eating a given food can have on your blood sugar levels. As Harvard Health Publishing explain,
Watermelon, for example, has a high glycemic index (80). But a serving of watermelon has so little carbohydrate that its glycemic load is only 5.
The glycaemic load is more important as it is more telling on how a typical serving of a given food might affect someone. It indicates both the quality and quantity of carb within a given food and using this system some foods, often fruits, that may appear “bad” from a GI perspective, fare much better.
Alternatively, and perhaps requiring less investigation and planning, if you are seeking to reduce your carb intake (and particularly your intake of sugary carbs) there are numerous options for simple low-carb vegan-friendly meals you can tuck into. Some are quite obvious: salads, many fruits and vegetables, soups, (dairy-free) yoghurt, high-fibre foods, tofu and so on.
Vegan Foods that Are Surprisingly High in Carbs
As mentioned, there are many vegan-friendly foods that are low in carbohydrates. But on the flip side, there are some that are (sometimes surprisingly) high in carbs, whether that be starch, sugars or a combination of both. If you are attempting to follow a low carb diet for whatever reason, here are the vegan foods to look out for and avoid or certainly consume in moderation.
Note that the amounts given are based on 100g of the food in question.
|Food Name||Carbs (g)||Energy (kcal)||Energy (kJ)||Starch (g)||Sugars (g)|
|Flour, gari (cassava flour)||95.1||361||1541||90.8||Tr|
|Flour, wheat, white, plain, soft||80.9||352||1501||80.3||0.6|
|Flour, wheat, white, self-raising||79.6||348||1480||79||0.6|
|Biscuits, ginger nuts||75.3||443||1867||44||31.3|
|Breakfast cereal, Shredded Wheat, honey nut, Nestle||72.8||361||1531||53.3||19.6|
|Breakfast cereal, wheat biscuits, Weetabix type, fortified||72.7||332||1412||68.8||3.9|
|Flour, wheat, brown||72.5||339||1441||71.5||1|
|Flour, wheat, brown, bread/strong||72||341||1450||71||1|
|Porridge oats, unfortified||70.7||381||1614||70.4||0.3|
|Flour, wheat, wholemeal||69.9||327||1390||68.5||1.4|
|Jam, stone fruit||69.3||261||1116||0||69.3|
|Jam, fruit with edible seeds||69||261||1114||0||69|
|Dried mixed fruit||68.1||268||1144||0||68.1|
|Flour, wheat, wholemeal, bread/strong||66.7||327||1390||65.7||1.1|
|Biscuits, digestive, plain||65.6||463||1943||48.1||17.5|
|Gravy instant granules||65.2||407||1714||N||5.3|
|Potato crisps, low fat||63.5||458||1924||62||1.5|
|Oatcakes, plain, retail||62.8||453||1904||59.6||3.2|
|Tortilla chips fried in sunflower oil||60.8||504||2110||58.3||2.5|
|Popcorn, salted, retail||59.3||470||1971||58.7||0.6|
|Pastry, filo, retail, uncooked||58.9||278||1180||56.5||2.4|
|Potato snacks, pringle-type, fried in vegetable oil||57.4||519||2168||55.9||1.5|
|Bread, white, toasted||56.2||267||1137||52.1||4.1|
|Bread, white, French stick||56.1||263||1121||53.3||2.8|
|Beans, blackeye, whole, dried, raw||54.1||311||1324||47.5||2.9|
|Bread, brown, toasted||54||266||1131||49.6||4.4|
|Tortilla, wheat, soft||53.9||285||1206||51.9||2|
|Bread, white, ‘with added fibre’, toasted||53.7||266||1132||49.5||4.2|
|Beans, butter, dried, raw||52.9||290||1234||46.2||3.6|
|Figs, whole fruit, dried||52.9||227||967||0||52.9|
|Couscous, plain, cooked||37.5||178||759||36.5||1|
|Rice, brown, easy cook, boiled in unsalted water||35.3||157||669||33||0.3|
|Rice, white, long grain, easy cook, boiled in unsalted water||34.7||146||621||34.7||Tr|
|Pasta, plain, fresh, boiled||31.8||159||677||30.7||0.6|
|Dates, raw, flesh and skin||31.3||124||530||0||31.3|
|Pasta, wholewheat, spaghetti, dried, boiled in unsalted water||27.5||134||569||27.5||Tr|
That table essentially reiterates what we have said elsewhere. Anything overly sweet, especially where sugar has been added, or starchy items such as rice, flour and bread are sure to be high in carbs. In addition, dried fruit and veg will tend to be higher in carbs as water has been removed, meaning the percentage of carbohydrates increases.
Low Carb Vegan Foods: Conclusions
As mentioned, people might choose to reduce the carbs in their diet for a number of reasons, whether health and wellbeing related, or because they want to slim down. How effective reducing carb intake is in relation to weight loss is open to question, but there is little doubt that carbs provide a fair amount of energy, and if you consume more energy than you use up, your body will store the excess energy, mostly as fat.
For people with diabetes, and potentially other health problems, such as obesity, attempting to follow a low carbohydrate diet can be advisable (though seek medical advice before embarking on such a course of action).
If you are a vegan who is seeking to reduce carbs in your diet, the good news is that many commonly consumed vegan foods are naturally low in carbs. Attempting to reduce your intake of sugary foods and white, starchy foods appears to be the healthiest option, whilst increasing the intake of dietary fibre (also a carbohydrate), is likely to have other health benefits.
It is fair to say that some carbs are less good than others, but as with most things relating to nutrition, it is all about striking a balance that is right for your circumstances. Eating a vegan diet that contains plenty of veg, especially of the green and leafy variety, plus nuts, seeds, legumes, some fruit, and healthy sources of vegan protein is likely to stand you in good stead… even if you do have the occasional bar of vegan-friendly chocolate or portion of vegan ice cream.