9 High-Protein, Low-Carb Vegetarian Foods

Cutting back on carbohydrates (carbs) is not all that complicated for most people unless you don't eat meat. This is because some of the prime sources of protein for vegetarians, such as legumes and whole grains, come with a high load of carbs.

If you eat eggs or dairy, trimming the carbs may not be all that difficult. However, if you subsist on a strict vegan diet, you need to take extra care to avoid reducing your protein intake to levels considered unhealthy.

Aims of Low-Carb Eating

The main reason that people embrace low-carb diets is for weight loss. A low-carb diet causes less fluctuation in blood sugars while significantly reducing your overall appetite. They also tend to raise "good" HDL cholesterol while lowering your blood pressure, triglycerides, and "bad" LDL cholesterol. Moreover, they can help reverse many of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including the increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Depending on your goals, you carb restrictions may be relatively minor, requiring the omission of starches and sugar. Others can be challenging, especially for those seeking rapid weight loss. For the average adult male or female, the daily targets for a low-carb diet can be broadly categorized as follows:

  • 100-150 grams per day to maintain a healthy weight
  • 50-100 grams of per day to induce gradual weight loss
  • 20-50 grams per day to put into a ketogenic state and induce faster weight loss

Dietary Challenges

Our bodies need a variety of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, to maintain normal body function. Of the 20 amino acids needed to build proteins, nine must come from dietary sources. Sadly, the largest supply of these tends to come from meat, fish, shellfish, and dairy. This can be a serious problem from strict vegetarians and vegans.

In addition, proteins from certain plant foods aren't as easily absorbed as those from meat or dairy. As such, you can eat loads of certain plant proteins, but only a small portion will be absorbed in the intestines and transferred to the blood for protein synthesis.

While some super-healthy foods like beans and legumes are a rich source of protein, their starchy content makes them inappropriate for strict low-carb diets. Similarly, while leafy vegetables offer proteins readily absorbed by the intestines, you would need to eat loads to meet your daily need.

For these reasons, vegetarians and vegans need to seek high-quality protein from a variety of non-meat sources to meet their daily needs. However, if the proteins are high in carbs, you either need to either scratch them from the list or consume them in moderation within your daily limit.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is at 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. By percentage, that would be roughly 10 percent of your daily caloric intake. 

1

Eggs

Pan of fried egg, with cherry-tomatoes and parsley
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Eggs are an excellent source of protein with a distribution of amino acids that are considered ideal for human metabolism. Additionally, eggs are rich in nutrients that are readily absorbed during digestion, including vitamin B12, choline, vitamin Avitamin D, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.

If you choose eggs from hens that eat a varied diet (preferably pastured hens), the nutrient content will be higher.

One large egg has 6 grams of protein and less than a gram of net carbs. Fortified eggs offer the same carb and protein count but with twice the omega 3 fatty acids.

2

Dairy

milk,Milk bottle,Milk glass

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Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese provide a lot of protein, as well as calcium and riboflavin. It is important to check the product label to avoid added sugars that can undermine a low-carb diet plan. Protein-rich dairy foods include:

  • Milk: 8 grams per 1 cup
  • Cottage cheese: 15 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Yogurt: 8 to 12 grams per 1 cup
  • Soft cheeses (like mozzarella and brie): 6 grams per 1 ounce
  • Medium cheeses (like cheddar): 7 or 8 grams per 1 ounce
  • Hard cheeses (like parmesan): 10 grams per 1 ounce
3

Whole Soybeans

Edamame
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The star of plant-based proteins is the soybean. If you are able to tolerate soy, it can be a rich source of protein while delivering far fewer carbs than beans or legumes. Soybeans are also high in fiber, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and riboflavin, and phytonutrients such as genistein.

Whole soybeans are great because they retain almost all of their fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients after cooking. Black soybeans have a milder flavor than yellow ones and can be used in place of high-carb beans in any recipe. You can also find organic, non-GMO black soybeans in a BPA-free can.

Edamame (fresh soybeans) is another excellent choice for whole soybeans and one that makes an enjoyable snack or salad addition.

There are also soy-based foods that are processed to imitate meat products (such as soy hot dogs or breakfast sausage). But, because the soy isolates are mixed with flavorings and other ingredients, you need to be extra careful and read the product label to check the protein and net carb count.

One cup of cooked soybeans contains approximately 29 grams of protein and 7 grams of net carbs.

4

Soy Milk

soy milk
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Among the best-known, high-protein soy products is soy milk. It is made by grinding soybeans with water, after which various filtration, homogenization, and stabilizing processes are used to create a cow milk-like texture.

Because the processes and additives can differ, the carb and protein counts can vary as well. Always check the product label and choose unsweetened varieties over those that are sweetened.

A one-cup serving of organic unsweetened soy milk will deliver around 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs.

5

Tofu

Tofu stir fry
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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 in Asian cuisines and can work in a variety of non-Asian recipes as well.

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 even more water out of tofu to obtain a firmer texture, ideal for baking.

A four-ounce serving of soft or firm tofu has 9 grams of protein and only 2 to 3 grams of net carbs.

6

Tempeh

Tempeh Marinating with Garlic and Ginger in White Dish
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Tempeh originates from Indonesia and is made from whole soybeans that are cooked, fermented, and pressed into a cake. It is denser than tofu and doesn't soak up flavors as well. Tempeh is also the only major traditional soy food that did not originate from greater Chinese cuisine.

The chewier texture makes tempeh an appealing meat substitute as it takes well to grilling or stir-frying.

A four-ounce serving of tempeh delivers around 20 grams of protein and 12 grams of net carbs, far higher than even tofu.

7

Seitan

Seitan
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Possibly the biggest change that vegetarians face with a low-carb diet is the need to reduce grains. Whole grains contain protein—not as much as soy or legumes but enough to help meet your daily nutritional needs.

Because grains are mostly starch, they are often the first thing cut out of a low-carb diet. Fortunately, there is one major exception: seitan, a food product made from wheat gluten that is high in protein and low in carbs.

Seitan is sometimes referred to as "wheat meat" or "mock duck" because of its toothy texture. It is often formed into loaves or cubes and is commonly found in many Asian cultures.

Depending on the brand, a one-ounce serving of seitan offers 21 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs.

8

Nuts and Seeds

Walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts in a bowl on black background
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Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are a great way to fortify your daily intake of protein but are best suited as a snack, topping, or spread rather than a primary protein source. While nuts and seeds pack a healthy boost of protein and relatively few carbs, they are primarily fat (between 65 percent to 85 percent on average).

A quarter cup of almonds, for example, offers 8 grams of protein and 3 grams of net carbs, but also 16 grams of fat.

To this end, portion control is important. If you sit with an open container of nuts, you could easily eat a cup and completely undermine your low-carb goals. To avoid this, divide any nuts you buy into single-size portions as soon as you bring them home.

9

Protein Powder

Protein Drink Powder / Weight Loss Shake

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Protein powders are powdered forms of protein that come from eggs, plants (such as rice, hemp, soy, peas, and potatoes), or milk (either in the form of casein or whey protein). The powders often include other ingredients, such as sugars, artificial flavors, thickeners, vitamins, and minerals.

Many products come in ready-to-make shake mixes that are specially designed to offer high protein and low carbs. Read the product label and veer to the sources that are low in added sugar and starch thickeners.

Protein powders may be an ideal way to supplement a vegetarian diet but should never be used as the primary source of protein.

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