As much as we love carbs—pasta, bread, grains, all those good things—carbs don’t always love us back. Experts say a low-carb diet can be a good way to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but for those with meat-free dietary preferences and restrictions, what about trying to follow a low-carb vegetarian diet? It’s a bit more of a challenge, but it’s doable with some guidance. Here’s how to follow a low-carb diet as a vegetarian.
Meet the Expert
- Juliana Shalek, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of The Nutrition Suite LLC.
- Danielle Zies, CNP, is a certified and registered Holistic Nutritionist and an expert in hormone-supportive diets. She is also the founder of Simply Nourished with Danielle and author of the Eat for Energy Cookbook.
What is a Low-Carb Diet?
A low-carb diet is a popular tool used for weight loss and management. Low carb diets are usually followed to help you lose weight. How? Well, when you cut carbs out of your daily diet, it helps reduce your insulin and blood glucose levels—and that helps you to stop storing fat in your body.
The Benefits of a Low Carb Diet
“The good news is that a low-carb diet does not involve calorie-counting, a method which tends to make people feel deprived,” says Shalek. “On a low-carb diet, you can still fill up on protein and healthy fats, which can be very satisfying,” Shalek explains, adding that you can still have carbs that are high in fiber with a lower glycemic index—like oatmeal, beans, and whole-grain bread—since they have less of a significant impact on our glucose levels.
Zies says, "A low-carb diet can be beneficial for helping to get blood sugar levels under control. When your blood sugar levels are more stable, your energy gets better, you sleep better and you feel better. It's the foundational support for your body on so many levels, including healthy skin, hormones, and organ function. Fewer cravings and weight benefits come as a result of getting your blood sugar under control."
To be clear, our body needs carbs to carry out its processes, but when we consume too many carbs, the body starts to store it as fat. Carbohydrates, like protein, and fat, are macronutrients, which the body uses for energy.
If you are following a low-carb vegetarian diet, Shalek says you should continuously monitor your protein levels since you won’t be getting certain nutrients from meat. But other than that, you’re good to go. Shalek strongly recommends against completely eliminating carbs from your diet. “Carbs serve an important role in our body, and if we completely cut them out, we are more likely to overeat them later,” Shalek explains. “So I urge mindfulness: Choosing whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates, watching portion sizes, and trying to spread out servings of carbohydrates evenly and consistently throughout day to promote better blood glucose control.”
Zies adds, "Keep in mind that any plant (fruit, vegetable, legume, grain, nut, seed, etc.) is a carbohydrate to a degree (with a few exclusions such as coconut and avocado). Sometimes, cutting carbs too low can lead to deficiencies and imbalances. People can notice symptoms such as hair thinning, nail breakage, brain fog, fatigue, weakness, hormonal imbalances, and more."
Low-Carb Dairy Products
Non-Fat Greek Yogurt
Other than being rich in protein and calcium, non-fat Greek yogurt also contains probiotics to aid in digestive health. “It’s so versatile—you can add to fresh fruit or low-fat granola or use it as a lower-fat substitute for mayonnaise or sour cream in certain dishes,” explains Shalek.
Carbohydrates: 9 grams per cup
Low Fat Cheese
The Laughing Cow cheese packets are low in fat and calories but are still satisfying (and did we mention they also provide a punch of calcium?) “They come in various flavors that you can spread on fruit, vegetables, or rice cakes,” says Shalek. “Plus, they come in cute little wedges that are portable.”
Carbohydrates: About one gram per cheese wedge
“You can add fruit and nuts or blend in a smoothie for added protein for breakfast or a snack,” says Shalek. In case you didn’t know, cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 (just opt for a low-fat version if possible).
Carbohydrates: 6 grams per 1/2 cup
Other Low-Carb Vegetarian Foods
This nut is a good choice because it’s high in protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fat. Furthermore, Shalek says almonds are a great snack on the go (just try to choose unsalted). However, “It’s important to be mindful of serving size since they are high in fat”, she notes.
Carbohydrates: 7 grams per 1/4 cup
Chia seeds can be used as a high-protein and high-fiber topping in your salads, smoothies, yogurt, and cottage cheese. “Plus, they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation in the body and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease,” explains Shalek. Worth noting: They contain about five grams of fiber per tablespoon, so technically your net carbs are low per serving.
Carbohydrates: 5 grams per tablespoon
Chickpeas (aka, what hummus is made from) are somewhat high in carbs but are also high in fiber. “These happen to be a good protein source for vegetarians,” says Shalek. “If you are mindful of portion size, chickpeas are the perfect addition to any meal in whole or puréed form.”
Carbohydrates: About 27 grams per 1/2 cup
Leafy Green Vegetables
“Non-starchy vegetables such as kale and spinach are what I like to call ‘good bang for your buck’ foods,” says Shalek. “This means you can fill up on them without taking in an abundance of calories, and they’re high in fiber so they keep you full between meals.” Additionally, these veggies contain important vitamins like C, A, and K, plus iron.
Carbohydrates: Less than one gram per 1/2 cup
This tasty vegetable contains a variety of vitamins and minerals like folate, potassium, and vitamins C and K (plus, a lot of fiber). Use it in place of meat for your main course since it’s plenty filling.
Carbohydrates: 5 grams per 1/2 cup
Eggs are great for a low-carb vegetarian diet because they are protein-rich and contain healthy fats (and keep you full longer due to their high protein). Bonus points: They’re easy to prepare and you can avoid monotony by cooking them in different ways, says Shalek. “You can also remove the yolk if you’re watching cholesterol levels,” she says.
Carbohydrates: Less than 1 gram per egg
“Tofu is a great source of protein for non-meat eaters, and it’s so versatile that it can be used in various dishes,” says Shalek. It’s low in calories and fat and high in iron and calcium.
Carbohydrates: 5 grams per cup
Like tofu, tempeh is also a good source of protein for non-meat eaters, and it’s just as versatile, says Shalek. Plus, it contains probiotics.
Carbohydrates: About 8 grams per 1/2 cup
Berries are high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C, and folate, which all have a beneficial impact on your body. “Do be mindful of appropriate portion sizes because they contain sugar—although they are also high in fiber to prevent significant sugar spikes and to keep you full longer,” says Shalek.
Carbohydrates: About 11 grams per 1/2 cup
If you’re into avocados, here’s the good news: They contain healthy fats rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and important nutrients, including folate, vitamins C and K, and potassium. They’re high in fiber, keep you full, and help regulate blood glucose levels. “Eat them on their own, as a spread, or as a dip,” suggests Shalek.
Carbohydrates: About 9 grams per 1/2 avocado
A little goes a long way: Spread it on an apple, a piece of celery, a whole-grain cracker, or eat it on its own. “It’s a very satisfying snack to keep you full between meals since it’s so high in protein,” says Shalek.
Carbohydrates: 3 grams per tablespoon
So it’s not quite a food per se, but olive oil is certainly low in carbs and has many beneficial health properties (it actually contains zero carbs.) “It’s rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and protect against cardiovascular disease,” says Shalek. “It’s great for cooking and for salad dressings. Just stick to the serving size of one tablespoon to avoid too many additional calories.”
A Week's Worth of Meals
Breakfast: An egg-white omelet with tomato, broccoli, spinach, and one slice of Swiss cheese, plus one cup of plain Greek yogurt with berries.
Lunch: Chopped salad with spinach, beans, tofu, tomatoes, mushrooms, 1/4 avocado, one tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, tossed with light olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Dinner: Grilled eggplant slices with grilled tomatoes and feta cheese on top, one tablespoon olive oil, seasoned with garlic powder.
Snacks: 1/4 cup unsalted almonds, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese with an apple, one cup unsalted air-popped popcorn. For extra flavor, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on top.
Day Two: Zies's Menu
Breakfast: Eggs + Veggies: 2 scrambled eggs with 1/2 a small sweet potato sautéed with mixed greens (Use ghee or avocado oil as your cooking oil). Enjoy with hot sauce.
Lunch: Greek Salad: 1/2 cup quinoa and 1/2 cup chickpeas with greens, cucumbers, red onion, olives, feta, and tomatoes. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
Snack: Little charcuterie: carrots, celery, red pepper and hummus with a few crackers and a few pieces of cheese.
Dinner: Zucchini Noodle pesto with crispy tempeh: Spiralized zucchini noodles sautéed with olive oil, onions, garlic, spinach, and peppers. Stir in pesto and top with a few pieces of pan-fried tempeh.
Dessert: Berries + Coconut Cream: 1/2 cup berries drizzled in coconut cream and topped with shaved almonds and cinnamon with a nice herbal tea on the side.
Breakfast: Vegetable frittata with eggs, broccoli, bell peppers, onions, and garlic. Black coffee with low-carb sweetener.
Lunch: Roasted broccoli and cauliflower with spiced turmeric and yogurt drizzle
Snack: A small handful of nuts and two hard-boiled eggs, sprinkled with Everything But the Bagel Seasoning for extra flavor
Dinner: Vegetarian Thai coconut curry with tofu, bell pepper, garlic, spinach, coconut milk, and spices
Breakfast: Low-carb breakfast smoothie made with frozen berries, spinach/kale, vegan protein powder, and unsweetened, non-dairy milk.
Lunch: Kale caesar salad topped with shaved parmesan, and 1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts.
Snack: 1/4 dark chocolate bar topped with one tsp of cashew butter.
Dinner: Stuffed peppers with cauliflower rice, tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, enchilada sauce, and salt and pepper.
Breakfast: Chia pudding with coconut milk, stevia sweetener, 1/2 cup fresh berries, and one tablespoon nut butter.
Lunch: Chickpea salad lettuce wraps made with one can of chickpeas (drained, rinsed, and mashed), 1/4 cup mayonnaise, celery, red onion, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.
Snack: Homemade trail mix made with a combination of one cup roasted pecans, walnuts, 1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seeds, and 1/2 unsweetened coconut flakes.
Dinner: Grilled tofu served with roasted broccoli, red peppers, and drizzled with spiced yogurt.
Low-carb vegetarian diets can be a bit hard to follow, but they don't always have to be. Zies says, "For vegetarians, it can be more difficult to achieve a low-carb diet (and often easy to go the opposite way towards a high-carb diet). My recommendation for vegetarians is to take a more "mindful" carb approach where you opt for more slow-burning carbohydrates such as starchy veggies (squash, beets, carrots, potatoes, yams, etc), whole grains and legumes over refined carbs and simple sugars that are easy to overeat and can keep us riding the ups and downs of the roller coaster imbalanced blood sugar levels can cause. This will ensure you keep your nutritional baselines covered in a healthy way, which is the ultimate goal."
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