Can you be vegan and low-carb? Meet 6 low-carb vegan food groups

Can you be vegan and low-carb?

If you’re looking to cut back on your carb intake or would like to try a vegan low-carb diet, this guide will help you figure out which foods to eat to achieve your goal.

You probably heard vegans eat a lot of fruit and vegetables which tend to be high in carbs and now you wonder: Can you be vegan and low-carb?

In any case, it’s certainly possible to eat low-carb as a vegan. You just need to know which plant-based foods contain the least carbohydrates or, in other words, are low-carb, and how to get enough protein and fat from vegan sources.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Why is everyone scared of carbs?

We shouldn’t be afraid of carbohydrates, because our body needs them to produce energy. This process is called “ATP” when carbohydrates are converted into glucose, which our cells need as fuel for their functioning. But it is necessary to distinguish between bad and good carbohydrates.

So, the question, why is everyone scared of carbs should be set a little differently: Which carbs everyone is afraid of?

Bad carbs are called simple or refined carbs, which are mostly found in sugary and starchy food, such as products made from wheat flour (bread, pizza dough, croissants, pasta, pastries), rice, potatoes, sweets, sugary sodas, etc.) The main element of simple carbs is that they have very little nutritional value and are broken down very quickly in the body.

Bad carbs provide us with a quick increase in energy through immediate bursts of glucose and make us feel full (only for a short time), but over time they can affect our health because they cause rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. That might also be the reason why we struggle to lose weight.

On the other hand, there are good or complex carbohydrates, which supply our body with healthy energy, don’t increase sugar levels, and also fuel our nervous system, muscles, brains, and organs. Plant-based food is rich in complex carbohydrates.

It has other benefits, as whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are loaded with nutrients and fiber that improve digestion and support metabolism. You can find good carbs in carrots, oats, quinoa, beets, brown rice, legumes, whole fruit, etc.

Yet, if you would like to cut down on carbs in your diet, there are some benefits of living a low-carb life, as it changes the way your body uses energy. One of these is that you will feel less hungry, which can contribute to weight loss. The other is linked to better control of diabetes and insulin resistance. It has a positive effect on lowering blood pressure and supporting cardiovascular health.

If you are wondering about the low-carb diet effects on your health, I would recommend you read this randomised controlled trial on Effect of a 6-month vegan low-carbohydrate diet on cardiovascular risk factors and body weight.

And another one on plant-based low-carb diet effects on body weight and blood lipid concentrations.

How to be vegan and low-carb?

A vegan diet excludes animal products and may be relatively low in fat while being high in carbs. If you decide to cut out carbs, it may seem like you don’t have many options, since the traditional keto diet includes a lot of meat, fish, eggs, and butter.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same results on a vegan diet that is low in carbs and rich in natural fats and protein. You just need to get familiar with alternative plant-based sources. You can look for the label’s “vegan” and “keto” on processed products, although in the strict sense of the word, a low-carb diet is not the same as a keto diet.

How to be vegan and low-carb if it is not the same as keto?

This does not mean that you completely eliminate carbohydrates. You can replace certain foods with low-carb foods. For example, instead of potatoes as a side dish, prepare tofu. The point is to get the body into nutritional ketosis. However, you can also achieve this without animal products.

Make sure to eat enough protein (tofu, tempeh…) and fat (avocado, olive oil, nuts…), which you can easily find in vegan sources. At the same time, avoid highly processed foods because they disrupt metabolic processes.

If you are wondering if going on a low-carb diet is even smart, there is a great paper, published on the Lancet, about dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality.

How to eat a low-carb vegan diet?

On a vegan low-carb diet, it’s vital to find the right balance of nutrients. The diet should consist of 75% dietary fat, 15-20% protein and no more than 10% carbohydrates. So now we have to break down those three nutrients that you can get from vegan sources.

Low-carb plant-based foods

You no longer need to wonder how to eat a low-carb vegan diet.

These are the foods that have the least carbohydrates in a vegan diet:

  • Vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, avocados, mushrooms (shiitake, king oyster, lion’s mane), leafy greens (spinach, kale), zucchini, onions, cauliflower
  • Soy: tofu and tempeh
  • Fruit: mostly berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries)
  • Nuts and seeds: pistachios, almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds (including butter made from nuts and seeds)
  • Condiments: nutritional yeast, fresh herbs, lemon juice, salt, pepper, spices
  • Fermented foods: natto (fermented soybeans), sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.

On the other hand, avoid foods that are high in carbs, such as:

  • Grains (wheat, corn, rice, cereal…)
  • Fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, mango…)
  • Legumes (lentils, black beans, kidney beans, peas…)
  • Tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams…)

Healthy fats

There is an abundance of fat sources on the vegan low-carb diet. It is vital to include healthy fats in your diet, as fat provides most of your calories. You can include tasty plant fats in every meal. Just keep in mind not to consume too many highly processed fats. Here is the list:

  • Plant-based oils (coconut, olive, avocado, red palm, and MCT oil)
  • Avocado
  • Nuts (especially macadamias)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and chia seeds)
  • Vegan dark chocolate
  • Coconut products (full-fat coconut milk, coconut cream, unsweetened coconut-based yogurt)

To learn more about chia seeds, you can read my post on why do chia seeds become gelatinous and how to soak them properly.

Protein

Getting enough protein on a vegan low-carb diet is essential. See more about that in the next paragraph. I also encourage you to read my article on the topic: Do vegans have protein deficiency?

What are low-carb, high protein vegan foods?

Our body needs all 20 amino acids (essential and non-essential), which break down from proteins in food. Certain plant-based foods lack sufficient amounts of one or more essential amino acids. You can solve this problem by eating different types of plants so that you ensure all 20 amino acids.

With a vegan low-carb diet, you have fewer options when it comes to foods rich in various proteins. For example, legumes and beans (lupini, black, chickpeas and pinto beans) contain most proteins. But they are also high in carbs and therefore not fit for a low-carb diet.

And what are low-carb, high protein vegan foods? Are there any at all? Of course there are.

The good news is that you can consume enough protein from plant sources without overdoing carbs. The best sources are soy and all soy products such as tofu and tempeh. Soy proteins can compare to animal proteins in terms of quality, variety, and how they break down in the body, so they represent the best source of protein on a vegan low-carb diet.

In second place are nuts and seeds and many products made from nuts and seeds. Examples: peanuts and peanut butter, almonds and almond butter, hemp seeds, sacha inchi seeds, sunflower seed butter, and tahini. These foods are high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

Is vegan meat low-carb?

Those of you who like meat substitutes might be wondering: Is vegan meat low-carb?

There are plenty of options for low-carb vegan meat substitutes. With meat alternatives, you can achieve a balanced low-carb diet by eating less than 20 g of carbs per day.

The vast majority of vegan meat alternatives (burgers, kebabs, sausages, etc.) are already low in carbohydrates and also high in protein, as they are made of soy protein (1.9 g  carbs per 100 g serving).

The same goes for tempeh, tofu, and seitan, which are made from soy protein. These three you can also cook in different ways.

Plant-based meat made from mushrooms contains the fewest carbohydrates (0.5 g carbs per 100 g serving).

When buying vegan meat products, you can also look at the label, where you can find information about the carbohydrate content.

I already discussed vegan meat replacements in my article: What do vegans eat to replace meat? I suggest you read it to find out a bit more about vegan meat replacements and their nutritional profile.

Is vegan cheese low-carb?

Vegan cheese addicts that are reading this are probable eager to know: Is vegan cheese low-carb?

If we look at the nutritional values of non-diary plant-based cheese alternatives, we can find data for some types of cheese. Vegan cheese slices contain 4 g of net carbs, vegan cheddar cheese 8 g of net carbs, and vegan mozzarella shreds contain 6 g of net carbs. That is for 1 serving.

If you are looking for low-carb vegan cheese, it’s best to opt for those that are made from plants with naturally fewer carbohydrates. Just make sure to avoid highly processed options, as they have much less nutritional value.

So, which plants are low in carbs and used in vegan cheese?

  • Soy and pea protein
  • Solidified vegetable oil (mostly coconut oil)
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Nuts (cashews, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, macadamias, pumpkin seeds)
  • Seeds
  • Assorted bacterial cultures

Are low-carb tortillas actually low-carb?

Traditional Mexican tortillas are made from 100% corn, while today we can buy mass-produced versions available in any grocery store. These tortillas are made from corn (finely ground maize) or flour (finely ground wheat flour), which are high in empty carbs. 

Although corn tortillas (12 g) have fewer carbs than wheat flour tortillas (14 g) *, they’re still pretty poor options if you would like to avoid carbs. Traditional tortillas actually contain the same amount of carbohydrates as bread.

Those are the traditional tortillas, but are low-carb tortillas actually low-carb?

You can opt for low-carb tortillas, which you can easily make at home or find in store, likely in organic stores. These tortillas are made from low-carb flour, such as almond, coconut, sesame, hazelnut, chia, and lupin flour, which are preferred in blanched form and not as a meal.

You can find this information on the packaging. These types of flour are also high in protein and fiber, which is good for digestion.

Low-carb tortillas have a similar taste and texture to “traditional” tortillas, as manufacturers add ingredients that are also rich in protein and fiber as they lower the net effective carbs and glycemic load. This can be nopal powder or psyllium husk powder.

* For the average sized tortilla weighing 280 g in total.

Conclusion

Vegan and low-carb diets are by no means incompatible. You can be vegan and on the low-carb diet at the same time, although you may have to invest a little more time and thoughts into purchasing and preparing your meals. There are many recipes online that are plant based and keto-friendly, delicious and easy to make.

Healthy fats are also found in plant-based foods, such as coconut oil, avocados, seeds, and nuts. In addition, vegetables, grains, and fruits are low in carbohydrates, and in stores, you can also find processed low-carb products.

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Gregory Knox
Gregory Knox

I'm Gregory, a father and animal lover. Ex vegan store owner and a foodie. My fascination in researching and pushing the limits of vegan nutrition takes me to new heights.