How to Do a Low-Carb Vegetarian Diet

Tofu Curry
Tofu Curry. Annabelle Breakey/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Can a vegetarian follow low-carb diet? Of course! Contrary to some of the popular myths about low-carb eating, a low-carb diet not at all reliant on meat. Vegetarian low-carb eating actually is not all that different from low-carb eating as a meat-eater. Here are some tips for becoming a successful low-carb vegetarian eater.

Low Carb Doesn't Have to Mean High Protein

A low-carb diet is not necessarily a high-protein diet.

So often people assume that when you reduce carbohydrate in your diet it's important to add a lot of protein. This is absolutely not true. It's important to get adequate protein, of course, and if you've been getting some of your protein from high-carb foods such as grains you'll have to shift your focus to other protein sources, but you don't have to load your diet up with protein.

On the other hand, it's worth experimenting to see if adding more protein to your diet is helpful. Especially as people approach midlife and their older years, it's not unusual to find that adding more protein helps people to feel better. I personally know quite a few women (including myself) who gave up on being a vegetarian in their late 30s or 40s because they felt better eating some meat. Perhaps just adding some protein could have been helpful at that point (though, of course, the improvement could be due to a factor other than protein).

Your Carb Needs

How many carbs for you? Like protein, it's important to figure out how much carbohydrate your body functions best with. People's bodies vary widely in their tolerance to carbohydrate. Some can get the majority of their calories from glucose sources (starches such as grains and potatoes are mostly glucose), whereas others who are not glucose-tolerant may have to eliminate these foods entirely to function at their best.

Most people are somewhere in between. Atkins calls this "metabolic resistance"; some call it "carbohydrate sensitivity" or other names. It may have to do with how much damage there is to beta cells in the pancreas. At this point, scientists have not zeroed in on how to figure this out, so we need to do it for ourselves.

Cut Out Added Sugars

You may think this goes without saying, but many vegetarians, even those who truly pay attention to eating nutritious foods, don't realize how much added sugar they are consuming. Food manufacturers will add sugar to almost everything, including "healthy" vegetarian foods such as soy milk, yogurt, salad dressings, and beverages. Read labels carefully, and don't fall for such sweeteners as "organic brown rice syrup", "barley malt syrup", and "evaporated cane juice". To your body, this is all just "sugar." (And don't even get me started on agave nectar.)

Watch Processed Foods

Keep reading labels when it comes to any manufactured or packaged food. Prime examples are soy-based substitutes for meats and cheeses, which often have added starches and sugars. Even apart from the extra carbs, many people find they feel a whole lot better when they ditch the processed foods.

which generally have lots of suspicious and often untested ingredients. Even ingredients that sound fairly simple and innocuous can actually have a larger story behind them. For example, a food such as milk can be literally separated into individual molecules, each of which is spray-dried and turned into various powders used in different ways. "Milk protein concentrate", which sounds OK, is one such derived powder. Every nutrient other than the protein molecules have been stripped from it, and each step in the processing has the potential to degrade the component. These powders are usually imported, often from half-way around the world, and then reassembled into the products on our grocery store shelves.

Need motivation? I recommend the books Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.

Grains Aren't Essential

One of the biggest hurdles for many vegetarians to overcome is the idea that grains - particularly whole grains - are vital to our health. We have been inundated with this message, so it's a very common belief. However, when you look at the research literature, you find that what is more true is that whole grains are good when you compare them to their refined counterparts - white flour and the like, but there is almost zero evidence that whole grains are better than no grains, especially for people who are most likely to respond well to low-carb diets.

Fats Are Not the Enemy

As you reduce carbohydrate, you'll have to add fat. This could be only small amounts at first, depending on your weight loss patterns and calorie needs. How much? This is highly variable. A small inactive woman who doesn't need many calories may not need to add much fat to her diet, but the larger and more active you are, the more this may be necessary. Once you figure out how much protein and carbohydrate is best for you, just add healthy fats in amounts that leave you satisfied.

There's no reason why a vegetarian can't stabilize blood sugar by cutting carbs, and reap the many rewards, including:

What About Low-Carb Eating as a Vegan? Is it Possible?

Admittedly, it is easier to follow a low-carb way of eating as a vegetarian who eats eggs and/or dairy products, but it can still be done as a vegan. Here are some more low-carb vegetarian resources:

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