If you are a vegetarian, you know by now the lifestyle can be a bit of a challenge in a world where most people still consume meat. But to go vegetarian and low-carb? That sounds crazy time-consuming and complicated, right?
Yes, it can be a little tricky, however, living a meat-free and low-carb life is not out of the question. So what the heck can you eat with so many restrictions?
Vegetarians can be low carb too
Author Margo DeMello certainly thinks so. After losing 45 pounds herself on a low-carb diet, DeMello wrote The Low-carb Vegetarian, a cookbook to help other vegetarians plan low-carb meals.
"Tofu, seitan and a lot of the different fake meat products" make good staples, she suggests. "For the hot dog and hamburger products, though, you do have to look at the ingredients, because some do have a lot of carbs."
And as for vegetables? "Carrots are out, and potatoes are out," says DeMello, "but I include a ton of the different kinds of greens, and cauliflower is a good substitute for potatoes or rice."
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Get your greens
Anthony Leone agrees on the benefits of green leafy vegetables. Leone is the founder and owner of New York City-based low-carb eatery Energy Kitchen. "The best vegetables that are low-carb are the ones that are low on the glycemic index, such as spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, cucumbers with the skin on, etc.," he says. "The vegetables you would want to stay away from are carrots, beets ... and potatoes."
Jason DeMoranville, author of The Core of a Balanced Diet, believes strongly in the benefits of soy.
"As a staple food for vegetarians, you can't beat soy as the No. 1 vegetarian source for good digestible protein and low carbs every day," he says.
DeMoranville isn't completely wrong about the benefits of soy, but we also know a growing number of people have been diagnosed with soy allergies over the past decade or so. So what should low-carb vegetarians who are allergic to soy consume for protein? Believe it or not, there are other options.
You can find protein in nuts and seeds (see the options on our shopping list below), nut milks (they aren't chock-full of protein, but they do help), and up-and-coming pea protein milks (like Ripple, which packs a pretty good punch). And there's always supplementation — Orgain makes a great plant-based protein powder that only has 3 grams of net carbs.
But what about beans? Vegetarians commonly know beans as a great protein source, but most varieties of beans tend to be high in carbs.
"Beans definitely have a place," says Les Harris, executive chef of the South Glastonbury, Connecticut-based Glastonbury Gourmet LLC. But since people tolerate different levels of carbohydrates in trying to lose weight, "the early stages of a low-carb diet plan may require the abstinence of beans for a limited amount of time."
Chef Jacki Pearson of St. George, Utah-based Green Valley Spa agrees. "Beans also provide a healthy protein alternative in moderate portions of half a cup," she says. "Even though a half-cup serving of kidney beans has about 20 grams of carbohydrates, eaten in moderation of no more than one-half-cup serving of beans a day, the overall carbohydrate count can be kept down." A half-cup of kidney beans also contains about 7 grams of fiber.
Fill up on fiber and healthy fats
Fruits are often restricted in the beginning of many low-carb diets but are allowed in later phases. Consult your low-carb plan to see what fruits are allowed.
"Eat foods rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats, such as nonhydrogenated, unprocessed coconut oil, olive oil, soybean oil and butter and no trans fats," suggests Karen Spirer, president of Karen's Fabulous Foods, a national food company that produces the Fabulous Tastes line of low-carb baked goods. "Avoid the hydrogenated vegetable proteins found in margarine and processed salad dressings. Healthy fats cause virtually no blood sugar elevation, and protein causes very little."
Updated by Sarah Long on 1/5/17
Low-carb shopping list for vegetarians
So what's a good shopping list to take to the grocery store if you're starting a low-carb vegetarian diet? The list below includes Spirer's and Harris' top suggestions.
Salad greens and other leafy vegetables — spinach, parsley, Boston and romaine lettuce, asparagus, artichoke hearts, arugula, bamboo shoots, beet greens, cabbage, cauliflower, celeriac, chard, collard greens, cucumber, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, escarole, garlic, green onions, jicama, kale, leeks, kohlrabi, mushrooms (especially straw), mustard greens, okra, peppers (all varieties), pumpkin, radish, radicchio, rhubarb, sprouts (alfalfa and bean), string and wax beans, snow peas, Swiss chard, tomatoes, tomatillo, turnips, water chestnuts, watercress, yellow summer squash and zucchini.
Acerola, avocado, blueberries, chayote, cantaloupe, cranberries, peaches, raspberries and strawberries.
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Legumes (limit on a strict low-carb eating plan)
Soybeans and soybean-derivative products, lentils, black-eyed peas and kidney beans.
Eggs prepared in any manner as long as they are not fried in trans fats; heavy cream, low-carb yogurts; soy milk and coconut milk; hard cheese, such as Swiss, cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, Edam, Jarlsberg, mozzarella, Muenster, etc.
Oils and fats
Butter, soybean, olive oil, coconut, sesame, safflower, almond, avocado and macadamia nut.
Whole grains and rice (allowed on some controlled-carb plans)
Soy, barley, oats, buckwheat, bulgur, wheat bran, kashi, spelt, quinoa, hominy, millet and wild and brown rice in moderation.
Seasonings and condiments
Ginger, oregano, mustard, garlic, olives, vinegar, peppers, mayonnaise and low-carb ketchup.
Vegetarian recipe ideas
Harris also suggests these simple vegetarian meals:
- Omelets, both plain and with vegetables and cheese. Experimenting with different cheeses (goat, sheep, cow) will add texture and flavor variety.
- Tossed greens with nuts (almonds, macadamia nuts).
- Vegetable stir-fry with bean curd and a sauce of herbs and cayenne pepper (to taste).
- Low-carb pasta with herbs, broccoli, garlic and tomatoes with a grated hard cheese (Romano or Parmesan).
- Low-carb pasta with cheese and a tomato sauce (without added sugar).
- Grilled vegetables (asparagus, peppers, zucchini and summer squash) in a marinade of olive oil, salt and pepper. Add a soft goat cheese on a low-carb whole-grain bread or low-carb pasta.