Are low carb vegan supplements worth buying?
Can it really be true?
Are there really those of the ‘enlightened few’ (vegans, haha), that are still perplexed by and attracted to the notion of low-carb, plant-based diets?
Let me tell you a little secret – once upon a time not too many years ago, I was one of perplexed – trapped by the morbid fear that eating an ounce of sweet potato or (horror of horrors) bread, would result in me piling on pounds of fat around my waist.
But the thing is this – unless you are one of the small percentage of people that this would apply to due to genetic reasons, such as decreased insulin sensitivity, the chances are that you needn’t worry one bit about your carb intake and potential fat-gain.
In this article, I’m going to discuss why carbohydrates are important for our health, the reasons that many of us experience ‘carb-phobia’ and also what you should look out for when choosing plant-based protein supplements.
But first some basics.
Why do we need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates have a bad rap. Fad diets like the paleo, Atkins or even (for the main part) the Ketogenic regimes have given millions of people the notion that all of them are bad.
The idea also falsely extends itself to the premise that eating carbohydrates will even lead to an increased chance of one of the primary diseases – such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease or hypertension.
It’s time to straighten the record.
Carbohydrates are a valuable macro-nutrient that which are important for a number of reasons:
- Energy – carbohydrates are normally the body’s main source of fuel as glucose, or are stored in the liver as glycogen. This energy is used to fuel movement and muscular activity and also helps to power the main organs, such as the brain, kidneys, heart and central nervous system.
In the absence of glucose in the blood, the body would have to resort to breaking down proteins and fat into glucose for energy instead, which could lead to muscle wastage and fatigue, especially in the short-term.
- Digestion – the high fibre content of many carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, whole-grain pasta and rice helps the body to digest the nutrients in food.
The non-soluble fibre slows down the absorption process and allows the body to take advantage of all the nutrients in a timely way.
- Nutrient intake – most of the carbohydrate-rich foods are also high in micro-nutrients, such as antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. All of these help with the body’s main functions, including digestion and gut health. Which essentially means that with an adequate variety of carbohydrate-rich foods in your diet, you can function better and eat less.
So if carbohydrate-rich foods are so beneficial for our health, why are they viewed with such negativity, especially by so many in the fitness community?
Big food, vested interests and fad diets
Firstly, not all carbs are the same.
Some are simple carbohydrates, such as sugars, while the other type are known as complex carbohydrates, which are starches that are found in vegetables, grains and legumes.
And guess which type is healthiest?
Yes, of course, the complex carbohydrates. Most of these have high levels of fibre, which regulates the absorption of nutrients into the body and keeps us satiated for longer.
Unfortunately, to most people, they are also the least popular of the two. Food companies, always keen to maximise their profits and keep the consumers coming back for more, bump up the sugar content of their products which reduces the cost of production and also makes them highly addictive because of their sweetness.
So, because of convenience and cost, we eat more and more refined products. This leads to a range of health problems as a result of the body becoming flooded with excess sugar. The body’s coping mechanism becomes stressed as it tries to over-produce the blood sugar regulator, insulin. This then leads to weight gain, and an increased chance of contracting a disease such as type 2 diabetes, or even cancer, as the body becomes inflamed and dysfunctional.
The resulting bad reputation of sugar-laden foods then carries over to healthier foods, such as starchy vegetables, grains and fruits, which are actually vital for our health, fitness and longevity.
The conclusion? Your chances of becoming ill or suffering from any shortfalls of vital nutrients are slim, if you follow a healthy, balanced diet, with a wide variety of whole food types. This includes a range of carbohydrate, protein or even high-fat whole foods to ensure your vital functions are kept healthy.
Which then leads on to the next question – if we are diligent in our approach to diet and health, do we actually need to supplement at all?
The need for supplementation
According to the world health organisation, the average adult only needs to consume around 0.75g of protein per kilo of bodyweight. So, a person weighing 80kg, would require 66g per day. This number should be relatively easy to reach for most people.
However, I imagine that, if you are reading this, you’re not most people and, like me, need the extra protein to maintain or build muscle mass. This is something that’s much harder to do with a relatively low intake as above.
General consensus dictates that the required intake should be around 1.8 to 2.0g of protein per kilo of bodyweight, which equates to as much as 160g per day. Clearly only the dietary regime of a hefty herbivore such as a horse, who spends the majority of its waking hours eating, would allow for such a target to be met – unless you supplement.
And this is where the protein powders could help.
Vegan protein supplements
There seem to be almost as many vegan protein supplement choices as there are options for the more traditional varieties, such as whey protein.
These are the key considerations when it comes to choosing which is best for you:
- Taste and texture
To many and, if you read the consumer reviews online, by far the main consideration when it comes to choosing a protein brand is its taste and texture.
While it’s true that many of the less processed plant-based protein shakes have a gritty, earthy taste and texture, most of those that have natural plant flavourings added are fantastically smooth and flavoursome.
Look out for brands that have sweeteners such as GMO-free stevia (a natural alternative to sugar), GMO-free xylitol (a naturally occurring alcohol), vanilla, cacao and or other natural fruit flavours.
Read the reviews, try a few different flavours and stick to what you like!
If you’re planning on having at least one protein shake per day, it’s certainly worth spending a little time looking at the quality of the ingredients.
And while it’s true that any vegan option is arguably healthier than the whey or bovine alternatives, there are still methods that larger manufacturers use to cheapen their products. For example, some companies use heat to extract the plant protein, which damages the nutrients. Others add cheaper, harmful additions such as GMOs or MSG to the sweeteners or thickeners such as soy, which may be from a GMO source.
Bio-availability is a catch-all term that tells you how easy it is for your body to digest food. You may have read that, when it comes to protein, certain types such as whey or meat-based proteins are better for your body to digest, use and therefore meet your training needs? Well, this is far from the truth, as plant-based proteins, if taken correctly are just as effective – and have none of the negative health implications.
Based on what’s known as the Bio-availability Index, whey and egg protein are the most bio-available, with plant-based proteins a little down the order. But, by combining plant proteins, such as rice and pea, this outcome changes, as the combined proteins have all the necessary constituents, known as essential amino acids, that help maintain and build muscle. And there are plenty of formulations out there with the full range that meets this need.
- Amount of protein per serving
If you want to aim for a daily protein target, it’s a good idea to break down that number into manageable portions.
Most sources recommend that you ingest around 30g of protein at any one time and, although this is controversial, it makes logical sense to spread out the meals and supplements to ensure that the ingestion is manageable.
And although plant-based proteins generally have less protein per serving that whey protein, you should make sure you look for a minimum of 15-20g of protein per serving. This way you can ensure that you’re not having to consume more than you need to and then have to spend money restocking up every week!
So….are the low-carb options worth buying?
So far we’ve established the importance of carbohydrates and supplementation to your diet, particularly if you have specific training goals.
So the question remains, is it worth buying into the low-carb vegan protein supplement options?
The short answer is that, unless you have issues with excess weight control and you’ve sought the advice of a medical practitioner, choosing supplements marketed as ‘low-carb’ are probably a waste of money.
Most plant-based supplements only have between 4g-12g of protein, so the better option is to base your choice of supplements on the criteria listed before; taste, quality, bio-availability and amount of protein per serving. This is going to have a far greater impact on your health and ability to reach your goals than anything else.
I believe that the most important thing to remember is to test, test, test! Never take anything you read at face value, especially industry-led reports or marketing. Every body is different and only you will know what works for you, based on trying things out. There is far too much conflicting evidence online for most people to have time to research, so stick to the fundamentals shown earlier and apply common sense.
And – give the supplement time to take effect, which could take a few months for any noticeable changes to take hold. Then tweak to improve the result if needed.
Which vegan proteins do you like? Which would you avoid? Why not share your experience with us?