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 actually be a good way to keep your health in check (blood glucose and insulin levels decrease, which minimizes fat storage in your body) and 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 definitely doable with some guidance.
“The good news is that a low-carb diet does not involve calorie-counting, a method which tends to make people feel deprived,” says Juliana Shalek, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., and founder of The Nutrition Suite LLC. “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.
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.
As a macronutrient, carbs serve an important role in our body, and if we completely cut them out, we are more likely to overeat them later.
Tips for Following a Low-Carb Vegetarian Diet
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 over the course of the day to promote better blood glucose control.”
Foods to Eat on a Low-Carb Vegetarian Diet
That said, which foods should you consume more of on a low-carb vegetarian diet? We asked Shalek to share her 15 favorites, plus one day’s worth of go-to meals that incorporate them.
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
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
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
Green Leafy 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 different ways, says Shalek. “You can 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
“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
If you’re into avocados, here’s the good news: They contain healthy fats rich with 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 Day'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.