High-Protein and Low-Carb Vegetarian Foods

Are you a vegetarian interested in reducing the carbohydrate in your diet? You may have to pay more attention to getting enough protein. Some of the usual sources of protein for vegetarians, such as legumes and whole grains, come with a high load of carbohydrates. If you eat eggs or dairy, getting enough protein isn't difficult. Vegan folks will have to pay closer attention. First, know how much protein your body needs each day.

Protein Sources on a Vegetarian Diet

Our bodies need a variety of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and most plant foods are low in one or more of them relative to what your body needs. This is one of the reasons it's important not to rely too heavily on any one plant-based protein source.

In addition, proteins from some plant foods aren't as easily digested or absorbed (this is often referred to by terms such as biological value, net protein utilization, bioavailability, and others). This means that the amount of protein in the food may not be the amount your body is actually getting, so it's good to have a bit of a cushion. A low-carb diet is not necessarily a high-protein diet. It's important to get adequate protein, but you don't have to exceed your daily needs.


Pan of fried egg, with cherry-tomatoes and parsley

Eggs are an excellent source of protein, with a distribution of amino acids that is considered "ideal" for the human body. Additionally, eggs are abundant sources of many other nutritional elements, some of which are difficult to get (especially in an easily-absorbed form) from plant sources. These include vitamin B12, choline, vitamin A (retinol) vitamin D, and easily absorbed forms of lutein and zeaxanthin. If you choose eggs from hens which eat a varied diet (preferably "pastured" hens), the nutrient content of the eggs will be higher. A large egg has 6 grams of protein and less than a gram of carbohydrate. If you need inspiration, see tips and recipes for cooking eggs.

Dairy Foods

Various types of cheese

Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheeses provide a lot of protein, as well as calcium and riboflavin. It is important to check the label for both natural and added sugars in these foods and make sure they fit into your own low-carb diet plan.

Protein in dairy foods:

  • Milk, 1 cup: 8 grams
  • Cottage cheese, 1/2 cup: 15 grams
  • Yogurt, 1 cup: usually 8 to 12 grams, check label
  • Soft cheeses (Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert): 6 grams per ounce
  • Medium cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss): 7 or 8 grams per ounce
  • Hard cheeses (Parmesan): 10 grams per ounce

Soy-Based Protein Foods


The star of plant-based proteins is the soybean. If you tolerate soy well, it can be a real help in getting enough protein without too much carbohydrate as is found in other beans and legumes.

Soybeans are high in fiber, protein, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and riboflavin, as well as a variety of phytonutrients, including genistein.

When choosing soy-based foods, you will see highly-processed foods made to imitate meat products (such as soy-based hot dogs). They are made from soy protein isolate and other similar ingredients. Read the label as carbohydrate and sugar components may be added. It can be a better choice to enjoy whole soybeans, tofu, and tempeh.

Whole Soy Beans


Whole soybeans are the least processed way of incorporating soybeans into your diet, retaining all of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. A cup of cooked soybeans contains approximately 29 grams of protein, 7 grams of net carbs, and 10 grams of fiber.

For variety, black soybeans have a milder flavor than the yellow ones and can be used in place of high-carb beans in any recipe. You can find organic, non-GMO, black soybeans in a BPA-free can.

Edamame (fresh soybeans) are another choice for whole soybeans and they make an enjoyable snack.

Soy Milk

soy milk

Soy milk is made by grinding soybeans with water. It is a decent source of protein, although it varies from brand to brand. Purchase unsweetened soy milk, as many brands add sugar.


Tofu stir fry
Tofu stir fry. bhofack2/istockphoto

Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and pressing the water out. It has a mild flavor and a texture that easily soaks up whatever flavors you add to it. The silken type comes in shelf-stable boxes and is good for blending into shakes, puddings, etc. The refrigerated type is firmer and good for stir-fries and other cooking. You can press out more water to obtain a firmer texture, and bake it to firm it up even more.

The amount of protein and carbohydrate in tofu varies by firmness and the method by which it is made. One brand has 20 grams of protein and 2 grams net carb in a 1/2 cup serving.


Tempeh Marinating with Garlic and Ginger in White Dish
Poppy Barach/istockphoto

Tempeh is made from whole soybeans which are cooked, fermented, and pressed into a cake. It is denser than tofu and doesn't soak up flavors as tofu does. In looking for nutritional data on tempeh, it's highly variable, so you'll need to check the type you purchase. One brand has 19 grams of protein and 12 grams of net carb (plus 5 grams fiber) per 100 grams.

Grain-Based Protein

Wheat field under sky

Probably the biggest change that vegetarians encounter with a low-carb diet is the need to reduce grains. They contain some protein, and the amino acids in them complement those in soy and other legumes to provide all the essential amino acids. Unfortunately, wheat and most other grains are mostly starch. However, the protein in grains (mainly wheat gluten) can be separated out and used in a few ways.

Many people are concerned about sensitivity to wheat and gluten. Be sure this isn't a problem for you before consuming large amounts of wheat gluten.

Seitan and Vital Wheat Gluten

Claudio Rampinini/istockphoto

Seitan is made from the gluten part of wheat, so it is very high in protein and low in carbohydrate. It is sometimes called "wheat meat" or "mock duck". It is formed into loaves, cubes, etc. One brand has 21 grams of protein, 3 grams of net carbs and 1 gram fiber for a 1/3 cup serving.

Vital wheat gluten is a powder made from drying wheat gluten. You often find it in recipes for low-carb baked goods.

Rice Protein Powder and Other Protein Powders

Image © Amber J Tresca

Unlike wheat, most other grains don't have enough or the right kind of protein to make something like seitan. However, rice and hemp, as well as other plants like soy and pea can be used to make protein powders. They are all processed to some degree or other but can be useful supplements to the diet in some circumstances.

Nuts and Seeds

Group of raw nuts and seeds including walnut, almond, pinenuts, pumpkin, sunflower seeds.
Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

Nuts and seeds can make a contribution to your ​nutritional needs, including some protein. Most nuts and seeds have about 8 grams of protein per quarter cup.

Avoiding Carbs in Processed Protein Foods

Food manufacturers will add sugar to almost everything, including vegetarian protein foods such as soy milk and yogurt. 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.

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 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 dried and turned into various powders used in different ways. "Milk protein concentrate" 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 or contaminate it.

Know How Many Carbs You Need

Like protein, it's important to figure out how much carbohydrate your body needs. People's bodies vary widely in their tolerance to carbohydrate, and various low-carb diets set different targets. If you are adopting a low-carb diet for diabetes control, consult with your doctor about what is appropriate.

A Word From Verywell

When you switch from a regular vegetarian diet to a low-carb vegetarian diet, your sources of protein may need to change from high-carb beans and grains to lower-carb soy, seitan, eggs, and milk. Enjoy exploring new recipes within these choices.


USDA Food Composition Database. United States Department of Agriculture. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/.

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