Meet a Vegan Low-Carber

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets Can be Low-Carb

Fried Tofu with Greens
Fried Tofu with Greens. ohn Lund/Tom Penpark/Getty Images

My friend Terri is probably the most careful eater I know. She eats an organic, vegan diet, with food as local and fresh as possible. Grains in her diet are always whole grains, and she eats very little processed food, or refined sugar. In short, she eats in a way which many nutritionists would hold up as the ideal. And yet, a few years ago she found that eating too much carbohydrate was having negative effects in her body.

By experimenting, she found a way of eating that worked for her. To me, in addition to being a model of someone who truly lives her goals of “walking lightly on the earth”, her story shows 1) that contrary to popular opinion, one doesn’t have to eat meat, or even animal products, to eat a low-carb diet, and 2) Terri is an example of figuring out how to adjust our diet to the changing needs of our bodies as we age. Many people find that as they go through midlife they do better with more protein and/or less carbohydrate in their diets (as well as fewer calories). Here is how one woman made that adjustment, even eating what many would consider to be a very restricted diet.

Tell us why you eat a vegan diet, and what you feel it does for you.

"I decided to become vegan in 1994, after reading Diet for a New America by John Robbins. I was already a vegetarian, but that book really clarified my feelings on eating animal products.

Not only do I believe that being vegan is better for my health, due to the reduced animal fat, cholesterol, drugs and hormones in my diet, but it’s much better for the animals and the environment, too.

Theoretically, I don’t have any real issues with eating eggs and dairy products from animals that are kept in natural conditions, are fed a healthy, organic, drug-free and hormone-free diet, and are well treated.

Unfortunately, most animals are not kept under those conditions, and commercial factory farming is appalling in its treatment of animals. Additionally, raising animals for dairy and egg production uses huge amounts of water, produces vast amounts of animal waste and its by-products, and causes dangerous amounts of chemical run-off to get into our water supplies.

So, by being vegan, I not only get the satisfaction of knowing that I’m eating a healthy, organic, plant-based diet which makes me feel better and more energetic, but also of knowing that I’m doing my best to “walk softly” on the earth."

Describe your diet before realizing that you would be better off reducing your carbohydrate load.

"Since becoming vegan, our diet has consisted of fresh, local (as much as possible), organic (almost exclusively) vegetables and fruits, whole grains and whole grain products, legumes, nuts and soy products. I always make sure that our many servings of vegetables include one leafy green daily, and that we all eat at least two fruits daily.

We get plenty of protein from soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh or legumes, and nuts or nut butter. We’ve always had sweets, thanks to the availability of high-quality dairy-free dark chocolate and organic natural and unrefined sweeteners."

What led you to realize that you were eating too much carbohydrate? What steps did you take after that realization?

"As I got into my forties, I started having increasing difficulty with osteoarthritis. One of the things that I noticed was that I would often feel swollen, especially in my extremities, which was quite painful as it put pressure on my arthritic joints. I also noticed that my weight would fluctuate by a couple of pounds overnight, which had to be water weight. I tried eliminating plants from the nightshade family from my diet for several weeks, but noticed no change. I also had a blood test to detect antigens from foods to look for food allergies.

It seemed to me that the swollen feeling and the water weight gain went together, and that they coincided with occasions when I ate a lot of carbs, especially bread. I would also feel what I call “carbed” after eating carbs, which is where my heart rate increases and I feel bloated. I finally decided that I should try eliminating wheat from my diet for a while. The results were fairly dramatic. Not only did the swollen feeling improve right away, but my weight started dropping pretty rapidly. At the same time, to make up for the lack of carbs in my diet, I made sure that I was eating three servings of soy protein per day; this not only helps me feel satisfied, but also helps enormously with reducing my hot flashes. Then I started noticing that eating legumes, but not soy, seemed to cause some of the same symptoms as the wheat, so I reduced my legume intake, as well. I also reduced the amount of potatoes I eat.

Now my arthritis pain is less, due to less water pressure on my joints, and the reduction in my weight has the added benefit of reducing the stress on my knees and hips, so that helps with the pain, as well. Plus my weight fluctuates a lot less."

Next: How Terri Changed Her Diet - Her struggles and strategies

Terri's Menus and Recipes

What is your diet like now?

"My diet now is much like it has been since becoming vegan (fresh, local, organic vegetables and fruits, some whole grains and whole grain products, some legumes, nuts and soy products), except I eat very few servings of grain: no toast, no sandwiches, for example. I absolutely love having a huge salad for lunch. I’ve never been a huge fan of corn chips, potato chips, pretzels, crackers or popcorn, so that’s not much of an issue.

A little brown rice or pasta to go with all the vegetables. I can eat small amounts of potato or sweet potato; I just can’t overdo it. I’ve recently discovered that I can’t eat the meat substitutes using wheat protein, nor seitan. I eat three servings of fruit every day, but no more than that. I’m also careful to eat more protein than I used to. I minimize sweet baked goods (cookies, brownies, cakes), eating them only when they’re really special, and enjoy the fact that I still get to eat about 100 calories of really dark chocolate twice every day! Now that my diet has changed, my tolerance for sweet things has gone down. The timing of this has worked out well, though, since I no longer need to eat as much as I did when I was younger, anyway. "

What do you struggle with?

"The thing I struggle with the most is serving size. I know I don’t need to eat as much as I used to (now that I’m middle-aged, I get full on much less food), but it’s frustrating to not be able to eat as much as I’d like of something without feeling overly full, and it’s so easy to over-estimate what I can eat, since what fills me up is so small.

A couple of bites of potato, pasta, or muffin is enough to satisfy me when I’ve got lots of vegetables to go with it. When I make a hearty soup for the family, I eat a very small bowl of it and have a side salad, so I don’t overdo the legumes. Even when I eat rice, oats or millet, I only eat about ½ cup, and that’s plenty.

I also wish I could eat more baked goods, but I’m happy with my lower weight.

The other difficult thing is making food for the rest of the family that I don’t get to eat. It may be that, as I get more comfortable with this way of eating and my weight stabilizes at a lower level, I’ll get to the point where I can add things back into my diet that I avoid now, like corn tortillas or grain products, but I’m not there, yet."

Is it hard to get enough protein?

"No, that’s actually easy. I have soy milk and nuts for breakfast, tofu or tempeh for lunch and/or dinner, soy yogurt for a snack. Plus I eat a small amount of legumes several times a week."

With fewer carbs, do you find yourself eating more fat, and if so, what is your attitude towards this?

"I do eat more fat now, and I’m fine with that since I can see that it isn’t adversely affecting my weight or how I feel. I make sure to use olive, canola, sesame or peanut oil for cooking, and non-hydrogenated margarine or canola oil for baking. When we first went vegan, I concentrated on baking low-fat muffins and things by substituting applesauce for the oil, but now I’ve converted those back.

My husband is okay with the switch back, as he eats less than he used to, as well, and our daughter is so active that the extra calories do her no harm at all."

Do you have any concerns about your nutritional status while trying to eat what some would view as a highly restricted diet?

"I don’t think I have any nutritional deficiencies. I do take daily multiple vitamins that include B-12, just in case. I eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits; I eat nuts, rice, oats, millet, and some legumes. I eat lots of soy protein. I admit that it is a highly restricted diet, but I feel better than I ever have in my life (except for the arthritis, of course), and I feel good about what I eat."

Terri tells us about a typical day's eating

"Here's a typical weekday's menu during the winter; the fruits and vegetables change with the season. Sunday breakfast is different, too, as it's usually tofu scramble and cooked steel-cut oats. The entrées obviously vary a lot; in the winter we usually have a soup one night, a baked tofu dish one night, while in summer we'll usually have a pasta dish instead of soup, and we have more cold dishes."

[Note from Laura: Because I was planning to analyze Terri's menu, I changed one of the fruits to a summer fruit.

Since most summer fruits have less carbohydrate than most winter fruits, I thought this would show more of a balance. In the summer, Terri would be eating three summer fruits per day.]

Terri's Menu

Breakfast:

  • 1 cup plain organic enriched soy milk
  • ½ cup uncooked organic rolled oats, added to the soy milk & allowed to soak
  • 4 walnut halves (about 2 Tbs), chopped up and added to the cereal
  • 1-2 Tbs dehydrated raspberries, added to the cereal
  • 1 orange

Lunch:

  • 6 cups (approximately) salad, including lettuce, red cabbage, carrot shavings, tomato, celery, cucumber, red or yellow bell pepper, snow or snap peas (when available for a reasonable price)
  • 3 ¼ - 3 ½ ounces marinated baked tofu
  • 2 Tbs low-carb oil and vinegar dressing
  • 0.6-0.7 oz dark chocolate (70-88% cocoa)

Snack:

  • 2/3 cup plain unsweetened soy yogurt
  • 1 peach, cut up and mixed with the yogurt

Dinner:

  • ½ cup cooked organic short-grain brown rice
  • 2-3 cups of the entrée, depending on what's in it, but all vegetables, including a leafy green (kale, collards, bok choy, chard, beet greens, etc.), and a brassica (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc) [some foods, such as kale, are in both categories] and almost always carrots [entree usually includes about 1.5 teaspoons of olive oil]

    Dessert:

    • 1 apple
    • 0.6-0.7 oz dark chocolate (70-88% cocoa)

    More about Terri's Diet and How She Adjusts For Family Eating

    "If I have tofu in the dinner entrée, I don't have tofu for lunch. If I have tempeh in the dinner entrée, I will have tofu for lunch, as I put less tempeh in an entrée than I do tofu. I can't really explain this; it just seems to me that three servings of soy are enough, and that four is overdoing it, especially as far as calories are concerned.

    I feel much less full if I have tofu at lunch than I do if I have it at dinner, so I try to limit tofu to one or two dinners a week, at most.

    If the entrée includes potatoes, I pick most of mine out (all of them, if there is rice on the side, as well, like for Indian food). If the entrée has sweet potatoes or legumes, I try to minimize the amount in my serving and maximize the other vegetables.

    I also drink 6 pints of water spaced out over the day, and 1-2 cups of herbal tea, usually in the evening. I never drink juice, or anything caffeinated.

    I also do ½ hour of cardio and ½ hour of strength training five days a week. I'm sure that has something to do with the weight loss!"

    Laura's Analysis and Commentary

    I analyzed Terri's sample menu. It has about 130 grams of effective carbohydrate, plus 46 grams of fiber(!), 63 grams of protein, and 1500 calories. Almost half of her daily calories come from fat, about a third of it saturated. A little over a third of her calories are from carbohydrate, and 17 percent from protein.

    It meets or exceeds (usually far exceeds) essentially all the minimum daily requirements of vitamins and minerals, except for vitamin B12, niacin, and selenium. Interestingly to me, it contains almost 1200 mg of calcium.

    [Update: Terri tells me she doubts she only eats only 1500 calories per day. She might grab some nuts here and there, for example.] Terri's diet has about the amount of protein usually recommended by nutritionists, (though less than most low-carb diet writers). It has much less carbohydrate, and much more fat than traditional nutritionists would recommend, but is consistent with most reduced-carb plans. Research shows that substituting healthy sources of fat for carbohydrate is a healthy way to eat.

    Although many would find this diet restrictive, note that Terri has found a way to work in her beloved chocolate twice a day. She is clearly sensitive to wheat (but has tested negative for both wheat allergies and celiac disease), and has changed her diet to accommodate that also. Obviously, this diet works for Terri and to me says loudly that even on a restricted diet, it's possible to eat well while eating low-carb, and that all of us should watch our bodies for signs of their changing needs.

    How to Be a Low-Carb Vegetarian

    Three of Terri's Favorite Recipes

    • Terri's Tofu Scramble - a common Sunday breakfast in Terri's family (it's really good!)
    • Baked Tofu with Three Marinades/Sauces - Terri uses baked tofu (which has a more "solid" texture than raw) as the basis for many recipes, including Peanut, spicy Szechuan, and Lemon Sesame, which she has kindly shared with us.
    • Baked Tempeh - This is less time-consuming than baked tofu, and can be used with all the same marinades/sauces.

    Terri's Tips

    • Make a huge salad on the weekend, and use it during the week
    • Buy really firm tofu (she uses "extra firm, protein rich")
    • Plan menus one week at a time

    Continue Reading