how to eat low-carb as a vegetarian or vegan

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

Vegetarians and vegans, while similar, have different diets with different concentrations on what they can and cannot eat. One thing they agree on: no meat. While meat is a staple of diets all around the world and has been since man killed his first game, the vegetarian option has been a viable source of nutrition for even longer.

Vegetarianism and veganism are often followed for various moral, ethical, or spiritual reasons, as well as the nutritional value. This has lead to many people becoming more aware of the unethical treatment of animals raised for food, and helping to put an end to animal cruelty. These discussions and repercussions have led to an all time high in the vegetarian and vegan numbers.

Despite the fact that vegetarianism and veganism limit the food choices you can make, it doesn’t mean that you can’t also follow one of the more popular and proven weight loss methods of recent years. Low-carb diets have been around since the mid-20th century and show no signs of slowing. Read on to find out how you can follow a low-carb diet while staying true to vegetarian and vegan standards.

What is vegetarianism?

A vegetarian, by definition, is a person who does not eat meat, but relies on vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and dairy products[1] for his dietary needs. Even though the word “vegetarian” wasn’t coined until the mid 19th century, the practice dates back to before the time of Christ. Some well known practitioners include Confucius, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Paul McCartney, to name a few[2]. It is estimated that about 10 percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarian[3].

While a vegetarian diet is overall healthy, it does have some deficits. Because the vegetarian diet eschews meat, the diet tends to be low on protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12[4]. Even though those nutrients can be found in a vegetarian diet, they are not found in abundance. All of these are essential nutrients that must be accounted for somewhere, but we will get to those a little later on.

Vegetarians, unlike vegans, will eat certain animal byproducts, such as eggs, dairy and honey[5]. These are high in protein and good fats and go a long way towards accounting for some of the nutrients vegetarians miss out on by not eating meat. However, vegans avoid even those.

What is veganism?

As noted above, vegans will not eat any animal byproduct, including eggs or any form of dairy, such as milk, butter or cheese[6]. As restricting as this sounds, vegetarians and vegans have actually reconstructed a new food pyramid to help ensure that they get all the essential nutrients needed to maintain optimal health. Furthermore, the creativity of a vegan diet contradicts what most people think of veganism—that it is bland, tasteless and boring[7].

One of the primary motivators of veganism is the ethical treatment of animals. From zoos to aquariums to the movies, “animal enslavement” is rampant and a cause for alarm for animal lovers[8]. But it is not just the obvious patterns of animal abuse and enslavement that drive some people towards veganism. Animal testing has been commonplace in medicine and cosmetics for decades. Animal byproducts can also be found in human medicines[9], and even innocuous snack foods like gummy bears and Jell-O often contain gelatin[10].

However, for all the fears vegans have about the sustainability of the earth and the effects of animal consumption, studies have shown that veganism may not be best for earth’s sustainability as grazing land isn’t typically suitable for growing crops, but is good for feeding animals such as cattle[11].

Effects of vegetarianism and veganism on the environment

The cost of producing food for human consumption takes an extraordinary toll on the earth’s resources. In terms of water alone, almost two-thirds of the water we use annually goes to producing food. A simple lunch consisting of a turkey and cheese sandwich, chips and soda takes over 200 gallons of water to produce[12]. Multiplying that by billions of people on a daily basis can get a little mind-boggling. Similarly, one gallon of milk takes four gallons of water to make, when you factor in the water used to grow the feed and directly for the cow[13].

Vegetarians and vegans point to statistics like these as proof of the harmful effects of the modern food industry. Moreover, this chart[14] shows what individual and specific foods are best for human’s impact on the greenhouse effect. The best foods are lentils and tomatoes, while the worst are lamb and beef. The rise of organic farms, including grass-fed, cage-free and pastured animals, are further proof that the vegan movement has long-reaching effects, even to those who do not practice vegetarianism or veganism[15].

How a low-carb diet affects the body

A low carbohydrate diet has proven over the years to be a very effective weight loss method, regardless of your dietary preferences. A low-carb diet forces the body to burn fat, instead of the glucose your body usually uses for energy[16]. The recommended daily intake of carbs is roughly 130 grams or fewer[17]; however, each human body is different and things like genetics, diet, exercise level and age, among many other factors[18].

Even though carbohydrates are essential for human bodily function, as they also provide amino acids vital in protein production, a low-carb diet is completely safe[19]. One of the more intriguing ways that a low carbohydrate diet works is that it curbs hunger and appetite[20], especially when combined with high-fiber foods.

There are basically two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Starch and fiber are the complex carbohydrates and they are found naturally in a plethora of vegetarian and vegan friendly diets[21], namely vegetables, grains, and cooked beans and peas.

Vegetables in a vegetarian or vegan diet

Fortunately for vegetarians, as the name implies[22], all vegetables are a go for a vegetarian and vegan diet. Vegetables such as corn, potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash and green peas, among others, are considered starchy vegetables[23]. Starchy vegetables are particularly high in minerals and vitamins, especially fiber. Fiber has a whole slew of nutritional benefits, including lower your cholesterol, lower blood sugar and reduce your risk of heart disease[24].

Fibrous vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, onions and peppers do not have much of an impact on blood sugar[25], as they are mostly made of water and fiber. This has shown to have a positive impact on diabetes regulation.

While it is true that some vegetables have higher carbohydrate counts than others, such as broccoli, spinach, avocado, peppers and cauliflower, low-carb diet plans are very easily adaptable for vegetarians and any other[26] diet with specific needs. The trick is in moderating calorie intake and knowing the specific calorie (and carbohydrate) amount for each vegetable you consume. Fortunately, as stated before, there is no shortage to the vegetables that can be consumed by vegetarians or vegans on a low carbohydrate diet.

Good carb foods for a vegetarian or vegan diet

The notion of “good carbs” and “bad carbs” on any diet is a little misleading[27]. They should be referred to more as “really good carbs” and “carbs that aren’t quite as good”. Carbs break down into sugar (glucose) which is then used as fuel for the body. Carbs that have high fiber content break down more slowly. These foods help the body feel fuller longer. Foods such as barley, oatmeal, whole grain pastas and cereals, quinoa and acorn squash fall under this category[28].

Instead of counting carbs, counting calories or counting fat content, one study suggests eating the best overall food leaves the quantity out of low-carb dieting and instead relies on quantity[29]. By doing this, you don’t have to look so closely at what is in each individual food, but instead focus on the overall health benefits of your diet. This way, there is less “picking and

choosing” and more just enjoying a delicious and nutritious diet.

Vegans have a little more work to do

Unfortunately, some great examples of carbohydrates for vegetarians fall under the category of dairy. Everything from cheese to milk to butter for cooking or spreading contains carbs that can be beneficial for a low carbohydrate diet[30]. As we have already established, however, vegans do not eat dairy, as it is a byproduct of animals, usually cows. Fortunately, there are tons of alternatives for dairy on the vegan diet. There are many plant-based milks that do not contain dairy at all. These include rice milk, soy milk, oat milk and several types of milk made from nuts (almond milk is a particularly popular alternative)[31].

Cheese is another roadblock vegans will inevitably encounter, as it is found in menu items from all cultures. However, cheese is extremely easy to replicate, even at home. Tofu can be turned into just about any cheese you can find in the dairy section of your grocery store[32]. If you are not much of the do-it-yourself type, these same tofu alternatives can be found in the health food section of most grocery stores and health food stores.

Benefits of low-carb diets

Now that we are sure that low-carb diets are compatible with vegetarian and vegan dietary preferences, the next question is why? What are the health benefits of a low-carb diet. Low-carb diets, such as the world famous Atkins’ diet[33], have proven to be a very effective weight loss tool in both men and women[34,35]. One of the reasons is that it helps curb appetite and hunger[36]. By stemming the appetite, and making you feel fuller longer, we are less likely to overeat, especially in between meals.

People have had a love/hate relationship with carbohydrates and fat for decades. Currently, the pendulum is swinging in favor of a low-carb diet for increased and retained weight loss[37]. Studies have proven time and again that a low-carbohydrate diet is effective in not only obese people[38], but in healthier men and women just looking to lose a few pounds. Additionally, low-carb diets have repeatedly shown a reduction in risk of heart disease[39], which is the #1 killer worldwide. While vegetarians and vegans already have a reduced risk (because they don’t eat meat), it is still good to know that beneficial side effect.


There is another group of vegetarians that will eat the flesh of fish, called pescetarians. A pescetarian is someone who follows the vegetarian diet but adds fish and other seafood, such as shrimp, scallops or other shellfish[40]. This is a popular middle ground between eating meat and going full vegetarian. Fish and seafood are full of protein and often don’t have the stigma attached of eating the flesh of land animals, such as cows, chickens and pigs. But make no mistake: a pescetarian is not a vegetarian by any definition.

By consuming fish and not other two- or four-legged animals, pescetarians do not contribute to growing greenhouse gasses[41] that are plaguing the atmosphere. The carbon footprint of eating fish is dramatically different than that of eating livestock. Forests and rainforests are being razed daily for storing and feeding livestock[42]. While some fish are farm-raised or “pastured” in lakes or rivers, fresh caught fish are purely organic. Plus, we don’t have to decimate our oceans or rivers in order to store fish. The earth’s surface is more than 75 percent water and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is in the deep ocean.

The importance of vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for the human body. It is vital for proper red blood cell growth and brain function. However, it is scant in plant foods but plentiful in meats, fish and dairy products[43]. That does not mean that vegetarians and vegans cannot get their recommended daily intake. Vitamin B12 can be found in soy and tofu products[44], which we have already noted can be manipulated into any one of several delicious dishes.

Studies have shown that vitamin B12 levels are usually dangerously low in vegans and only moderately higher in vegetarians that consume dairy products and eggs[45]. Humans do not naturally produce vitamin B12 and it must be supplied by your food source. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include weakness, fatigue, pale skin, gastrointestinal issues and vision loss[46]. However, vegans and vegetarians can also get their needed vitamin B12 from supplements. Supplements of vitamin B12 are specifically recommended for vegans[47], because they also lack or are deficient in other nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. A multivitamin taken every day can go a long way towards raising the levels of those vitamins to appropriate levels.

A couple of final thoughts

Vegetarians and vegans really do have a ton of options for their preferred diet. Just because they prefer a salad over a hamburger does not mean they have limited choice. In fact, you can usually put a lot more on a salad than you can a burger. What is important to remember is what you choose to eat. Foods high in fiber are essential for any diet, none more so than a low-carb diet[48]. Fiber helps slow down the metabolism of carbs, which in turn prompts the body to burn fat instead of glucose.

These particular diets and lifestyle choices are not without risk, however. Like any diet, it takes a complete understanding of what you are getting into and full disclosure to your doctor or nutritionist. Because a healthy, balanced diet comes from foods of all kind, vegans and vegetarians who are not careful run the risk of malnutrition[49] or severe deficiencies, such as the aforementioned vitamin B12 or iron[50,51]. Again, as with all diets whether short term or long term, consult your doctor and make sure you have no outstanding health conditions that could put you at risk.

The sati line

Even though vegetarianism and veganism have been around for thousands of years, vegetarian diets have only recently experienced a surge in popularity for potential health benefits. It was formerly considered a spiritual or psychological choice, choosing to leave all animals off the table and keep them in nature. As we all know, though, times change.

Veganism and vegetarianism are not the only popular diet choices around. Low-carb diets have been a big hit in both popularity and proven results since the 1960s. Is it possible to combine a healthy lifestyle choice, such as vegetarianism or veganism, with a newer diet? Will the dietary needs and preferences cohabitate?

In short answer, yes. There is absolutely no reason a vegan or vegetarian cannot comply with a low carbohydrate diet. Vegetables are plentiful in choice and variety and have various carbohydrate counts. Additionally, grains, nuts and legumes are a healthy addition to the low-carb diet and fall well within the realms of vegetarianism. Remember, though, it is important to follow the rules of both diets and keep your doctor informed. Happy dieting!

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