If you’ve been looking up anything regarding the vegan diet over the past year, you’ve probably come across the term high carb low fat vegan or HCLF vegan. It seems like this is a new trend going around the internet, people eating tons of bananas and potatoes, riding their bikes, soaking in the sun, being lean and energetic.
But is this really just a new trend without any good foundation? Or is it actually the real basis of a healthy plant-based diet?
After having been a vegan for over 5 years now (back when everyone on YouTube either ate vegan junk food or a fully raw diet), we thought it’s time to write up a good overview of this way of eating and living. Let’s see what high carb veganism is all about.
Vegan or high carb low fat vegan diet: The Difference
Simply put, vegan foods come from plants instead of animals. If one is solely interested in following a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons, they can basically eat the Standard American Diet – only made with vegan foods.
There’s vegan burgers dripping of oil, vegan cheese made with 20 different artificial substances, vegan muffins with a ton of refined ingredients, and of course soda.
This step and dietary change gives you quite a few advantages of course – from not causing any harm to animals, to saving the rainforest, having a smaller carbon footprint, and cutting out cholesterol, most saturated fat, and animal protein that’s been linked to causing cancer.
But then, there’s this next step that many people want to take in order to take good care of their bodies too. And, luckily, they do this by adopting a high carb vegan diet. This means, that the majority of their calories (usually 70-80%) come from carbohydrates, such as starches and fruit.
People eating this way usually eat a lot of either fruit and/or grains and root vegetables, which means bread, potatoes, pasta, banana smoothies or ice cream, rice, and much more. At the same time, they cut out most or all of the free oils and eat limited amounts of nuts, seeds, and avocados.
This greatly reduces the amount of processed food one can still eat, but of course there’s the possibility of eating refined white or brown sugar, syrups, sugary cereal, and sugary fruit sorbets – all of which are sub-optimal for our health.
So when we look at a vegan diet, we can see that the majority of whole, natural, plant-based foods are already high in carbohydrates:
Animal-based foods, such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, are almost completely devoid of carbohydrates (with the exception of some lactose, milk sugar, found in dairy). What’s more, they are devoid of fiber, many essential vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants.
Instead, they consist of anti-nutrients such as cholesterol, saturated fat, animal protein, toxins, and much more that is detrimental to our health.
So the more whole vegan foods we eat, the higher in good carbohydrates our diet will be. There’s no more effort required to keep the fats very low, apart from eating a limited amount of nuts and seeds.
High Carb or High Fat?
With the latest diet craze around low carb diets going around, we feel like we need to emphasize this point again. There are of course 3 macro nutrients, namely carbohydrates, protein, and fat – all of which are found in every single whole plant-based food. And we do need all of these nutrients in different amounts.
Glucose, which is most readily obtained from carbs, is the body’s preferred and the brain’s only energy source. It should therefore predominate our diet, which is what most national and international health organizations also suggest.
When we eat fewer carbs than we need, we get crazy cravings for calorically dense food, we get tired or hangry… and if you deprive yourself of this nutrient for a few days, your body will go into ketosis, which is an ill state to be in.
It’s also associated with loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, and hypotension (lower blood pressure). This metabolic state of a starving person is simulated when eating a low carb, high fat diet and tells the body it has some kind of serious illness.
And since no health organization would recommend eating over 30% of your calories from protein or fat, this shouldn’t even be an option.
Regarding the second macro nutrient: It’s almost impossible to not get enough protein, even when you eat a vegan diet. The WHO and US National Academies Institute of Medicine recommend that around 10% of our daily calories should be coming from protein – and that’s just because they wanted to double the 5% requirement to be healthy, just to make sure.
Most people in the Western world are literally obsessed with protein, thinking it’s the single most important nutrient and that one needs to eat a lot of animal products in order to be lean, muscular, and healthy – when in fact, most of us eat way too much protein, which not only causes weight gain and extra body fat, but also stresses your kidneys and leaches important bone minerals. What’s worse: animal protein always comes with a huge load of saturated fat and cholesterol.
And lastly, people surely don’t suffer from a fat deficiency - quite the opposite. When eating over 20% of your daily calories from fat, you risk severe diseases. Fat slows down our blood flow and keeps the sugar from entering the cells by blocking it, so the nutrients cannot be properly assimilated.
Because insulin is keeping to be produced in this scenario, it can exhaust the pancreas and actually cause type 2 diabetes. It’s not the sugar in the blood!
Another very common disease (actually the number one killer in the Western world) can be prevented and even reversed by eating a low fat vegan diet. The number one risk factor for developing heart disease is dietary cholesterol, followed by high blood pressure, excess weight, and diabetes. All of these are easily avoided by eating a low fat vegan diet and engaging in moderate movement.
Health benefits of a low fat, whole food vegan diet
Every year the CDC (Center for Disease Control) creates a list documenting the leading causes of death in the United States. For many years now, the number one killer has been heart disease, followed by cancer, respiratory problems, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
Though these diseases seem unrelated, these all fall under the banner of lifestyle diseases– meaning that they can be prevented by making healthier choices in our lives.
This is why most plant-based doctors recommend eating a low fat vegan diet for the prevention and reversal of most chronic diseases. Yes, it can even cure these diseases. And it makes a lot of sense, since it’s the traditional diet most peoples in the human history have survived successfully, even thrived on. Even today, those who follow a traditional high carbohydrate Japanese diet are amongst the healthiest and longest lived people in the world.
Research demonstrates that the most protective factor against heart disease is fiber, which is only found in plant foods. The factor most correlated with heart disease is cholesterol, which is only found in animal foods.
A single meal of animal products can paralyze our arteries, cutting their ability to function properly. Each meal featuring animal foods leads to temporary inflammation, but if every meal contains animal foods we face chronic inflammation which can damage our cardiovascular system, but also our lungs and brains.
Even after just two weeks of plant-based eating, breast cancer and prostate cancer cell growth rates decrease rapidly.
It seems like we can actually reprogram cancer cell death by improving our diet. Vegan blood can suppress cancer 80% better than that of a meat eater.
What’s more, Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 4 million Americans each year can be helped by reducing meat intake. Research shows that meat eaters have 2-3 times the risk of Alzheimer’s than those eating a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Eating a lot of fiber has also been shown to help with constipation and diarrhea, as well as autoimmune diseases. By keeping the fat very low, people can also heal their acne or candida. The high amounts of carbohydrates help with chronic fatigue and balance out hormones.
The benefits are endless when we start eating a diet that’s made of the foods our bodies are designed to eat – which is luckily acknowledged by bigger research who wants more physicians and dietitians to learn about this topic too.
What to eat on a high carb vegan diet
When eating a high carb low fat vegan diet, the basis of your meal should always be either starch or fruit, depending on your preferences. While human beings thrive on starches like whole grains or potatoes, some of us like more fruit in our diet – especially when it’s summer time.
Generally, you should fill your plate about half with food like:
- Rice, oats, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, millet
- Spelt, whole-grain pasta or bread
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips
- Pumpkin, winter squashes
- Any kind of beans, peas, lentils
Your main calorie source may also be fruit like apples, oranges, bananas, stone fruit, berries, melons, grapes, pineapples, etc. Even if you choose to eat a lot of potatoes and rice, you can add as much fruit as you like to your meals.
But let’s not forget about all of the healthy and beneficial colorful raw or cooked vegetables that you should add to your starches or fruit. They contain a lot of water, minerals, and fiber, which also reduces the calorie density of your meals. Examples of vegetables are:
- Lettuce, spinach, cabbage, collards, kale, chard
- Asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots
- Cauliflower, corn, eggplant, mushrooms, onions
- Green peas, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini
Topping your food with some natural sweetener is also an option, though they should be used sparingly of course, since they are processed. Salt (along with any other herb) is another way to spice your food and make it as tasty as possible – though some high carb vegans try to limit their sodium intake to 1,000 mg per day.
But what about other healthy and whole plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, tofu, or olives? They can be eaten in moderation, meaning less than 15-20% of your calories should come from these sources.
Everyone has slightly different needs and preferences, so play around with different amounts in order to find what works best for you. Oil of course needs to be cut out completely for health reasons, or at least greatly reduced to a minimum amount.
Then, there are foods which should not be eaten on a high carb vegan diet. These are:
- Meat, poultry, fish, seafood
- Honey, gelatin, eggs, mayonnaise
- Milk from animal sources or milk products like cheese
- Margarine, oil (including olive, canola, or coconut)
- Chocolate bars, chips, doughnuts, candy
High carb meal examples
Putting all of this together we have a ton of delicious, colorful, convenient, and healthy options to make for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Though these lists may make some people think that there's barely any food left to eat, check out these great meal options:
- Smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, fruit
- Rice and beans, potatoes with salad, pasta marinara
- Sandwiches, grain salads, vegetable pizza
- Dried fruit, banana ice cream, coconut water, fruit juices
Raw or Cooked?
Within the high carb vegan movement, there have been different variations of this diet. While the presented information in this article were based on the bulk of research as well as a reasonable and convenient low fat whole food plant-based diet, we wanted to explain other forms of this way of eating too.
With his book “The 80/10/10 diet”, Douglas Graham introduced a low fat raw vegan diet for good health and outstanding athletic performance. The title of his book stands for 80% of daily calories from carbohydrates, 10% from protein and 10% from fat.
While most of his claims are either not scientifically proven or taken out of context (the original results came from a high carb cooked vegan diet), some people follow his principles – and do so successfully.
Graham suggests that humans are frugivores, meaning we should eat a fruit-based raw vegan diet with some leafy greens and nuts or seeds. It goes without saying that this way of eating is not achievable or desirable for the majority of people who don’t live in the tropics.
The constant requirement for high quality, ripe, high caloric fruits like bananas, mangoes, dates, and pineapple is incredibly inconvenient and unsociable, expensive, and not exactly environmentally friendly.
It’s also increasingly difficult to meet one’s nutritional requirements if we cut out more and more possible food choices. The scientifically proven health benefits of whole grains and legumes are absolutely overwhelming and should encourage everyone to include these foods in their diet.
There’s also the possibility of having high triglycerides (blood lipid) when eating huge amount of fruit like it’s recommended here (ranging around 2,000-3,000 calories). What's more, simple sugars aren't as satiating as starch, so you feel like constant grazing, taking in huge amounts of calories because you're almost never satisfied.
Partially raw: a compromise?
A lot of people in the online community (mainly YouTube and Instagram) used to follow these principles that Graham suggested. The proof is in the pudding though: while those who stuck with it got great results in the beginning, 99% of the former high carb vegan followers have resumed to eating (at least some) cooked food again.
And that makes perfect sense, since cooked food is a lot easier digestible, higher in calories and better in nutrient absorption. It’s also available everywhere we go, and it’s the food we evolved on (meaning starches), the food that made our brains grow larger.
The next diet regime that came up after people had been leaving the fully raw 80/10/10 diet, was something that was coined “Raw Till 4” or even “Raw Till Noon”. While most of these people were still certain that raw foods would be a lot more beneficial than any cooked food, they tried to keep their diet as raw as possible for most hours of the day – either until lunch or until dinner.
So apart from eating a 100% fruit based breakfast, and sometimes also lunch, they cooked up some rice or potatoes with vegetables for dinner. This way of eating is still practiced by many people and a more reasonable approach to a high carb diet, though there’s no data that suggests a high raw diet is superior to a healthy cooked diet, like the one described above.
Other lifestyle factors
These variations of high carb vegan diets often come with a lot of other lifestyle suggestions – or rather rules that one should follow in order to reap all the benefits. Some of them have more of a scientific basis than others, which are mainly anecdotal evidence and work well for some people. Here are the most common ones:
We all need rest of course. It’s an important process during which our bodies can heal, recover, digest, and calm down. Adults need around 8 hours usually, but the advice of high carb people goes a little beyond that – they suggest around 9-10 hours of sleep, which we should get from 9-10pm until around 7am.
Drinking enough water is important for good health too. While many studies claim we should be drinking 1.5 liters a day or 8 glasses (8oz), high carb vegans like to drink around 2.5-3 liters per day (even though they typically eat more water-rich food too). This should come down to peeing very clear urine around 8-10 times a day, while drinking a liter of water immediately after waking and making it a consistent habit throughout the day.
With all of this sugar running through our veins, there’s an increased drive to move around. High carb eaters are often seen running or riding their bike around for many hours during the week. They usually work out daily, sometimes every 2 days. Other preferred methods of exercising are rebounding, yoga, MMA, or walking.
Exercise or regular movement is an important part of every healthy lifestyle. While not everyone needs to run or bike 2 hours every day, there's often times room for improvement regarding the quality and quantity of exercise we engage in.
Though experts disagree slightly when it comes to this topic, most suggest around 1,800 - 2,000 calories a day for adult women, and 2,500 calories for men. Not so most of the high carbers! They stress the idea of most people not eating enough and having to eat at least 2,500 - 3,000 calories per day, eating up to 6,000 calories when being very active.
This is one of the reasons many people gain weight on this lifestyle initially (by eating more than they need), even though they would only need to listen to their own hunger and fullness. Eating such a huge amount of calories is often only possible when choosing refined products, such as fruit juices, refined (coconut) sugar, and refined flour products as well as lots of dried fruit.
This is NOT what doctors or nutritionists suggest, even those who want their patients to follow a high carb vegan diet.
Yes, it's important to produce serotonin in the brain and vitamin D on the skin, but don’t overdo it and risk skin burning or skin cancer. We usually need 30 minutes a day in order to produce enough vitamin D and serotonin.
While this isn’t nutrition-related, it’s often spoken about in the high carb community. Many believe that it’s crucial to keep a positive attitude or mindset, to be grateful and have a good perspective. Although they don’t just eat vegan for the animals and the planet, but also for their own health benefits, they stress that one’s ego shouldn’t get into the way of things and that this is about a bigger issue than one single person.
Although one might disagree, regarding much of the drama that’s going around and people arguing back and forth on these topics, it’s often times a value that can be found amongst many high carb vegans.
A whole food plant-based diet is automatically rather high in carbohydrates, since most plant foods are naturally carb-heavy – which is a good thing. The bulk of medical research stands behind this way of eating and great results have been achieved by following this diet.
You can make it as easy or as hard as you want it to be: there are many ways of eating a high carb diet and we should always be open to trying new foods or variations. If you’re new to a vegan diet, then don’t stress about the details too much in the beginning. And if you’re not getting the results you want, then ask yourself whether you have cut out all processed food.
The lifestyle advice is controversial, and doesn’t need to be followed by everyone. You can always start at a lower level (of sleep, exercise, calories, or hydration) and find out whether this brings you positive results.
Have you been eating a high carb vegan diet before? What has been your experience? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Author
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.