High-Protein and Low-Carb Vegetarian Foods

Are you a vegetarian interested in reducing carbs in your diet? You may have to pay more attention to getting enough protein.

Some of the usual sources of protein for vegetarians, such as legumes and whole grains, come with a high load of carbohydrates. If you eat eggs or dairy, getting enough protein isn't too difficult, though a vegan diet will require that you pay closer attention. First, however, it's important to know how much protein your body needs each day.

Protein Sources on a Vegetarian Diet

Our bodies need a variety of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Most plant foods are low in one or more of these relative to what your body needs. This is one of the reasons it's important not to rely too heavily on a single plant-based protein source.

In addition, proteins from some plant foods aren't as easily digested or absorbed. This is often referred to by terms such as biological value, net protein utilization, and bioavailability, among others. It means that the amount of protein in the food may not be the amount your body is actually getting, so it's good to have a bit of a cushion.

A low-carb diet is not necessarily a high-protein diet. There's a balance that you need to find in order to get adequate protein without exceeding your daily needs.



Pan of fried egg, with cherry-tomatoes and parsley

Eggs are an excellent source of protein, with a distribution of amino acids that are considered "ideal" for the human body. Additionally, eggs are abundant sources of many other nutritional elements. Some of these are difficult to get (especially in an easily-absorbed form) from plant sources. 

Included in the list of valuable nutrients from eggs are vitamin B12, choline, vitamin A (retinol), vitamin D, and easily absorbed forms of lutein and zeaxanthin. If you choose eggs from hens which eat a varied diet (preferably "pastured" hens), the nutrient content of the eggs will be higher.

One large egg has 6 grams of protein and less than a gram of carbohydrate.


Dairy Foods

Various types of cheese

Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese provide a lot of protein, as well as calcium and riboflavin. It is important to check the label for both natural and added sugars in these foods and make sure they fit into your own low-carb diet plan.

Protein in dairy foods:

  • Milk: 8 grams per 1 cup
  • Cottage cheese: 15 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Yogurt: usually 8 to 12 grams per 1 cup (check the label)
  • Soft cheeses (Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert): 6 grams per 1 ounce
  • Medium cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss): 7 or 8 grams per 1 ounce
  • Hard cheeses (Parmesan): 10 grams per 1 ounce



The star of plant-based proteins is the soybean. If you tolerate soy well, it can be a real help in getting enough protein. At the same time, it doesn't give you as much carbohydrate as other beans and legumes.

Soybeans are high in fiber, protein, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and riboflavin, as well as a variety of phytonutrients, including genistein.

Whole Soybeans

Whole soybeans are the least processed way of incorporating soybeans into your diet. They retain all of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients the bean has to offer. One cup of cooked soybeans contains approximately 29 grams of protein, 7 grams of net carbs, and 10 grams of fiber.

For variety, black soybeans have a milder flavor than the yellow ones and can be used in place of high-carb beans in any recipe. You can find organic, non-GMO, black soybeans in a BPA-free can.

Edamame (fresh soybeans) are another choice for whole soybeans and they make an enjoyable snack.

Soy-Based Protein Foods

There are a variety of soy-based foods available. Often, you will find highly-processed foods made to imitate meat products, such as soy-based hot dogs. They are made from soy protein isolate and other similar ingredients.

Read the label carefully because carbohydrate and sugar components may be added. You may find that the better choice is to enjoy whole soybeans, tofu, and tempeh.


Soy Milk

soy milk

Among the best-known soy-based products that can be a good source of protein is soy milk. It is made by grinding soybeans with water, though the amount of protein it provides varies from one brand to another.

It's often best to purchase unsweetened soy milk because many brands add sugar. Be sure to read the labels carefully for these hidden carb sources.



Tofu stir fry

Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and pressing the water out. It has a mild flavor and a texture that easily soaks up whatever flavors you add to it. It is one of the most popular meat substitutes and can work in a variety of recipes.

The silken type of tofu comes in shelf-stable boxes and is good for blending into shakes, puddings, and similar "soft" foods. The refrigerated type of tofu is firmer and good for stir-fries and other cooking. You can press more water out of this tofu to obtain a firmer texture, and bake it to firm it up even more.

The amount of protein and carbohydrate in tofu varies by firmness and the method by which it is made. One brand has 20 grams of protein and 2 grams net carb in a 1/2 cup serving.



Tempeh Marinating with Garlic and Ginger in White Dish
Poppy Barach/istockphoto

Tempeh is made from whole soybeans which are cooked, fermented, and pressed into a cake. It is denser than tofu and doesn't soak up flavors as well.

The nutritional data on tempeh varies greatly, so you'll need to check the packaging of any tempeh you're considering. One brand has 19 grams of protein and 12 grams of net carb (plus 5 grams fiber) per 100 grams.


Seitan and Vital Wheat Gluten

Claudio Rampinini/istockphoto

Possibly the biggest change that vegetarians encounter with a low-carb diet is the need to reduce grains. They contain some protein, and the amino acids in them complement those in soy and other legumes to provide all the essential amino acids.

Unfortunately, wheat and most other grains are mostly starch. However, the protein in grains (mainly wheat gluten) can be separated out and used in a few ways, including seitan and vital wheat gluten.

Many people are concerned about a sensitivity to wheat and gluten. Be sure this isn't a problem for you before consuming large amounts of wheat gluten.


Seitan is made from the gluten part of wheat, so it is very high in protein and low in carbohydrate. It is sometimes called "wheat meat" or "mock duck." It is often formed into loaves and cubes, though other forms are available. One brand has 21 grams of protein, 3 grams of net carbs, and 1 gram fiber for a 1/3 cup serving.

Vital Wheat Gluten

Vital wheat gluten is a powder made by drying wheat gluten. You will often find it in recipes for low-carb baked goods.


Rice and Other Protein Powders

Steamed Rice Served In Bowl On Table
Alex Ortega / EyeEm/Getty Images

Unlike wheat, most other grains don't have enough or the right kind of protein to make something like seitan. However, rice and hemp, as well as other plants like soy and pea, can be used to make protein powders.

These are all processed to some degree, but they can be useful supplements to a diet in some circumstances.


Nuts and Seeds

Walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts in a bowl on black background
Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Nuts and seeds can make a contribution to your nutritional needs as well. Most nuts and seeds have about 8 grams of protein per quarter cup, though they do vary based on type.

The important thing to keep in mind with nuts and seeds is portion control. They make excellent snacks, though it's also easy to eat too many without realizing it. You can counteract this by dividing them into single servings as soon as you bring them home.


Avoiding Carbs in Processed Protein Foods

Close up of glasses with different kinds of milk
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Food manufacturers will add sugar to almost everything, including vegetarian protein foods such as soy milk and yogurt. Read the labels carefully and don't fall for sweeteners such as organic brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, and evaporated cane juice. To your body, this is all just sugar.

Keep reading labels when it comes to any manufactured or packaged food. Prime examples are soy-based substitutes for meats and cheeses, which often have added starches and sugars.

Even ingredients that sound fairly simple and innocuous can actually have a larger story behind them. For example, a food like milk can literally be separated into individual molecules, each of which is dried and turned into various powders, then used in different ways.

"Milk protein concentrate" is one such derived powder. Every nutrient other than the protein molecules has been stripped from it. Also, each step in the processing has the potential to degrade or contaminate it.

Know How Many Carbs You Need

Like protein, it's important to figure out how much carbohydrate your body needs. Our bodies vary widely in their tolerance to carbohydrate, and various low-carb diets set different targets. If you are adopting a low-carb diet for diabetes control, consult with your doctor about what is appropriate.

A Word From Verywell

When you switch from a regular vegetarian diet to a low-carb vegetarian diet, your sources of protein may need to change from high-carb beans and grains to lower-carb soy, seitan, eggs, and milk. Enjoy exploring new recipes within these choices.

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