How to eat low carb as a vegan
Are you a vegan interested in low-carb and keto diets? Or wondering if a plant-based diet can even be low carb? At Diet Doctor, we want to help you lose weight or improve your health by making things simple no matter what dietary pattern you choose. Read on to learn how to make a low-carb vegan diet work!
1. What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet contains no animal products. Unlike some vegetarians, vegans don’t eat eggs or dairy products. Those on a vegan diet also avoid animal-based ingredients like gelatin, which is made from bones and hides.
Is being “plant-based” or vegetarian the same as being vegan? Not always. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they mean different things. Also, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not automatically a healthy diet. For instance, white bread, cane sugar, refined flour crackers and desserts can all be made vegan or vegetarian
Definitions of plant-based diets vary. Although they all focus on vegetables and other plants, some may include small amounts of animal foods.1 People choose a plant-based way of eating for health, environmental, or ethical reasons. For some or all of these same reasons, vegans do not use animal products, including clothing and other items made from animals, like wool, leather, or suede.
2. Why combine vegan and low carb?
Eating both low-carb and vegan may sound strange at first. Vegan diets have no animal products and may be relatively low in fat while being high in carbs. Keto or low-carb diets typically include animal products that provide plenty of fat with minimal carbs.
But you can stay vegan while experiencing the benefits of living a low carb life. One of these benefits is experiencing less hunger, which can lead to greater weight loss compared to other diets.2 Other low carb benefits are better control of diabetes and insulin resistance, blood pressure reduction, and many others you can read about in our guide to the science of low carb and keto.3
Note: We don’t think that eating animal products is necessarily unhealthy. Learn more: Guide to red meat — is it healthy? We do, however, want to help everyone, no matter why they choose to eat or not eat meat.
Research on low-carb vegan diets
Well-planned vegan diets based on healthy whole foods can provide adequate protein and most, although not all, of the vitamins and minerals needed for good health.4
Do a quick search online and you’ll see inspirational stories from people who successfully follow a low-carb or keto vegan lifestyle, including one from spine surgeon Carrie Diulus, who has type 1 diabetes.
But, except for a two-part clinical trial that explored an “Eco-Atkins” approach, low-carb vegan diets haven’t been studied much.
In the study’s initial four-week phase, 47 overweight people with high cholesterol levels were randomly assigned to follow either a lower-carb vegan diet or a higher-carb vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy. Both groups were calorie-restricted, and although weight loss was similar, the lower-carb group had greater reductions in heart disease risk factors. Another plus: people in the lower-carb vegan group seemed happier with their diet. 5
During the second part of the study, each group was allowed to eat as much of the permitted foods as they wanted. At the end of six months, the lower-carb vegan group had lost slightly more weight, raised their HDL cholesterol (a likely beneficial move), and lowered their LDL cholesterol and triglycerides more than the higher-carb vegetarian group.6
Like many nutrition trials, this was a fairly small study with a high dropout rate. Also, the lower-carb group wasn’t that low carb; daily intake averaged about 100 and 140 grams of net carbs in the first phase and second phases, respectively. But results show following a low-carb vegan diet is possible and may help improve certain heart disease risk factors.
3. Top 5 tips for a low-carb vegan diet
The hardest part of being on a low-carb vegan diet is meeting all your essential nutrition needs.
1. Make protein top priority
Getting enough protein is essential, and on a vegan diet, it’s even more important, because protein quality matters as much as quantity.
Here’s why: after you eat, your body breaks down the protein from your food into amino acids, the “building blocks” of protein. Although there are 20 amino acids found in protein, 9 are essential, meaning they must come from your diet because your body can’t make them.
Protein from animals is “complete,” providing all the essential amino acids in amounts your body needs. In contrast, plant protein sources (with the exception of soy and nutritional yeast) are “incomplete,” because they lack sufficient amounts of one or more essential amino acids.7
The good news? Combining different types of plants can provide all the essential amino acids in the amounts required.
The bad news? Reducing carbs means limiting or omitting several food combinations that provide “complete” protein. For example, vegan diets often pair legumes like beans and peas – a great source of the amino acid lysine but low in another, methionine – with grains that are high in methionine but low in lysine. Combos like these can create carb overload.
Check out our low-carb vegan protein sources to choose high-quality protein without overdoing carbs.
Now for “quantity.” Aim for higher protein intake if you’re getting your protein from plant sources.
Plant-based proteins are less easily digested and absorbed by the body compared to animal proteins.8 For this reason, you may need more protein if you follow a vegan diet compared to a non-vegan diet. Soy protein is comparable to animal protein in terms of quality and digestibility, while other plant proteins vary. Vegans who consume soy regularly may not need much more protein, while those who avoid it might need approximately 30% more.9
How much protein do you need on a low-carb vegan diet? We usually say 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kg of reference body weight per day. For instance, if you’re a woman whose reference body weight is 140 pounds (64 kg), your daily protein goal should be 76-108 grams per day. But if your protein comes from plants, you may want to stay in the upper end of that range.
It’s also important to spread protein out throughout the day instead of eating most of it at one sitting. That’s because your body uses protein most efficiently when you eat a minimum of 20 grams at a time, though you probably don’t need more than 30-35 grams.10
Is there a maximum amount of protein your body can absorb at one time? Although, that amount isn’t agreed upon by all nutrition experts, in order to meet your protein needs with plants, aim for about 25-35 grams at each meal.11
Our list of low-carb vegan protein foods shows you how to get the right amounts of the right kinds of plant protein.
2. Count your carbs
Which is healthier and easier to follow long term: a low-carb vegan diet or a keto vegan diet?
Although keto vegan diets are popular, they don’t allow much flexibility. For some, eating this way all the time can make it difficult to meet essential nutrition needs. A low-carb vegan diet, as opposed to a vegan keto diet, includes more foods, making it easier to get the nutrition you need and stick with this plan long term.
Most vegan diets are high in carbs because they include lots of grains and legumes. By contrast, a low-carb vegan diet can provide anywhere from 30-100 grams of net carbs per day, depending how strict you want or need to be. 12vegan tofu scramble or even full keto days on a regular basis if you desire! If you have diabetes or want to lose weight, aim for less than 50 grams of net carbs most days in order to maximize results.13
3. Include healthy fats
On a low-carb diet, fat provides most of your calories, and a vegan version is no exception. In fact, another name for your new way of eating could be low-carb, high-fat vegan, or LCHF vegan. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Unlike protein and carbs, we don’t specify a specific range of fat grams. Instead, we recommend adding enough fat at each meal to feel satisfied but not stuffed.
You can enjoy several healthy, tasty plant fats on a LCHF vegan diet, including olive oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil or cream. Cocoa butter, found in chocolate, is great too.
Guide: Healthy fats on a keto or low-carb diet
Fat is one of the three macronutrients (“macros”) found in food. On a keto or low-carb diet, fat is your primary energy source, so choosing healthy types and eating the right amount is important. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about fat on a carb-restricted diet.
4. Choose nutrient-dense plants
Where should your carbs come from?
Remember, you’ll already get some carbs in your vegan protein sources. The rest should come from a wide variety of above-ground vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some berries. These foods provide important vitamins and minerals, along with fiber to fill you up. Plus, they taste absolutely delicious when paired with healthy fats!
Here are a few low-carb plants providing vitamins and minerals that vegan diets often fall short of:
Hemp seeds: A great source of zinc and omega-3 fatty acids; 1 gram of net carb per ounce (28 grams)
Sesame seeds: Rich in calcium, iron, and zinc; 3 grams of net carbs per ounce (28 grams)
Spinach: This versatile veggie is high in calcium, iron, and zinc; 1 gram of net carb per 100 grams (3 ounces), cooked
Learn more about meeting your nutrient needs on a vegan diet in the guide below.
5. Supplement with vitamin B12
You may meet most of your essential nutrient needs on a vegan diet. However, one nutrient you’ll definitely need to supplement is vitamin B12, which is found only in animal foods. Vegans are at very high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency unless they take supplements or consume fortified foods.15 Failing to supplement with vitamin B12 on a vegan diet can lead to anemia, nerve damage, dementia, and other serious medical problems — some of which may be irreversible.16
4. Foods to eat
Now that you know about getting plenty of high-quality protein at every meal, eating nutritious plants, and adding healthy fats to your food, what foods should you eat on a low-carb vegan diet?
Protein sources (includes protein and net carbs per serving)
Beans and legumes:
Lupini beans: 25 grams of protein and 10 grams of net carbs per 1 1/4 cups (200 grams)
Lentils: 18 grams of protein and 24 grams of net carbs per 1 cup (200 grams)
Black beans: 15 grams of protein and 26 grams of net carbs per 1 cup (170 grams)
Pinto beans: 12 grams of protein and 25 grams of net carbs per 1 cup (170 grams)
Chickpeas/garbanzo beans: 12 grams of protein and 26 grams of net carbs per 1 cup (164 grams)
Green peas: 9 grams of protein and 13 grams of net carbs per 1 1/4 cups (200 grams)
- Canned black soybeans: 20 grams of protein and 2 grams of net carbs per 1 cup (250 grams)
- Tempeh: 18-20 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
- Natto: 18-20 grams of protein and 9 grams of net carbs per 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
- Edamame beans: 17 grams of protein and 5 grams of net carbs per 5 ounces (140 grams)
- Tofu (extra firm): 15 grams of protein and 2 grams of net carbs per 4 ounces (120 grams)
Concerned about the health effects of soy? You may not have to be. The benefits of soy appear to outweigh the potential risks, especially for people on vegan or plant-based diets. Read our policy on soy.
Plant protein powders (pea, seed, brown rice, or combination), unflavored: 18-24 grams of protein and 1-2 grams of net carbs per serving
Nutritional yeast: 16 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 1/2 cup (30 grams)
Nuts, nut butters, and seeds:
Hemp seeds, hulled: 25 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 1/2 cup (80 grams)
Sacha inch seeds: 18 grams of protein and 1 gram of net carbs per 1/2 cup (56 grams)
Peanuts: 18 grams of protein and 9 grams of net carbs per 1/2 cup (72 grams) 17
Peanut butter (natural): 16 grams of protein and 7 grams of net carbs per 1/4 cup (64 grams)
Almond butter: 15 grams of protein and 7 grams of net carbs per 1/4 cup (64 grams)
Almonds: 14 grams of protein and 6 grams of net carbs per 1/2 cup (64 grams)
Sunflower seed butter (no-sugar-added): 14 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 1/4 cup (64 grams)
Tahini: 10 grams of protein and 8 grams of net carbs per 1/4 cup (60 grams)
Most above-ground vegetables contain less than 10 grams of carb per serving and can be included on a low-carb vegan diet. However, check the carb counts and limit the ones highest in carbs if you’re trying to stay under 50 grams per day.
Check out our complete guide to very-low-carb vegetables below.
Keto vegetables – the best and the worst
What vegetables are best for a keto diet? There’s a simple rule: Above ground vegetables are generally lower carb and therefore the best keto options. Below ground vegetables, a.k.a. root vegetables, contain more carbs and should be consumed with care, especially potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Depending on your daily carb target, you may be able to include a few other fruits as well, such as melons, cherries, apples, and summer fruits like plums:
Here’s our complete guide to low-carb fruits and berries.
Low-carb fruits and berries – the best and the worst
What are the best and the worst fruits and berries to eat on a low-carb diet? Here’s the short version: most berries are OK low-carb foods in moderate amounts, but fruits are candy from nature (and full of sugar). For more details, check out this amazing visual guide, with the lower-carb options to the left.
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Coconut milk
- Coconut cream
- Coconut butter
- Cocoa butter
- Avocado oil
- Macadamia, pecan or other nut oils
- Sesame oil
- Dark chocolate (read ingredients label to check for dairy)
- Nuts and seeds (provide a small amount of protein and variable amounts of carbs: Learn more )
5. Foods to avoid
On a low-carb vegan diet, avoid all animal products, such as:
- Meat, chicken and fish
- Gelatin and collagen
- Most packaged foods (read ingredients labels)
In addition, steer clear of:
- and the rest of these high-carb foods
6. Low-carb vegan substitutions
Stay vegan and low carb with our handy replacement list:
Other nut milk
We have another low-carb vegan alternative to share with you, although this one needs a bit of explanation.
Aquafaba is a fancy word for the liquid left over after chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are cooked. It’s become very popular in vegan circles because it’s a great sub for eggs in many recipes, like our own vegan mayo (which includes a bonus hummus recipe). It also works well in place of egg whites because it forms stiff peaks when whipped. With only 2 grams of carb per 3.5 ounces (100 grams), aquafaba is a good fit for all low-carb diets.
7. Low-carb vegan meal planning tips and recipes
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
For an easy tofu scramble: Drain firm tofu and chop into small pieces. Mix in 1/4 teaspoon turmeric and salt and pepper to taste. Sauté tofu in healthy fat for about 10 minutes. In separate pan, sauté broccoli, kale, or other veggies in healthy fat until done. Transfer food to plate once cooked. Add some berries on the side topped with coconut cream yogurt, if you like.
Or try Judy’s fabulous low-carb oatmeal with a scoop of plant protein powder mixed in to meet your protein targets.
Lunch and dinner:
Start with a good protein source: legumes, soy, or a combination of nuts and seeds
Then pair the protein with your choice of vegetable(s). Here are a few ideas:
8. Meeting essential nutrition needs
Compared to people who eat animal products, vegans are at higher risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency, as discussed above. Additionally, vegans are at risk of protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and zinc deficiencies.19 Low-carb vegans may also have a more difficult time getting the right amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
While you can meet most essential nutrition needs with food, sometimes supplements are necessary. Whether you need them will depend on your overall diet, the nutrient levels in your body, and any health conditions you may have.
This guide can help you meet your essential nutrition needs on a low-carb vegan diet. Ask your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about getting the nutrition you need.
9. Dining out
With a bit of planning and prepping, eating a low-carb vegan diet at home is easy!
On the other hand, consuming a nutritious meal when dining out as a low-carb vegan can be a little more challenging.
Here are a few tips for dining out, LCHF vegan-style:
- Salad bar: Pile on greens and other veggies; add tofu (if available) or chickpeas, nuts, and seeds; top with olive oil and vinegar.
- Asian restaurants: Choose stir-fried tofu or tempeh with extra vegetables in place of rice; request that your dish be prepared without added sugar or flour.
- Indian restaurants: Enjoy tofu curry with vegetables; request that your dish be prepared without added sugar or flour.
- Burgers: We think the Impossible Burger (made with soy) and Beyond Burger (made with pea protein) taste remarkably like real burgers. The Impossible Burger is more widely available, appearing on the menu at several restaurants and fast food places, including The Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, and Burger King. Order your burger wrapped in lettuce or over a salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing. Add avocado or guacamole, if available. Note: While we generally don’t recommend processed products with a long list of chemical additives, these might be okay to include occasionally when dining out.
- Quick-serve Mexican restaurants: Eating at Chipotle? Try a delicious Sofritas (soy fajita “meat”) salad with roasted vegetables, guacamole, and salsa. And Qdoba offers “Impossible meat” as a protein option for salads and bowls, along with avocado and several salsas.
10. You got this!
Although it takes some planning, a healthy low-carb vegan lifestyle is absolutely doable.
The key? Pay attention to your nutrition needs, including getting enough protein at every meal. If you do that, you can eat vegan low-carb forever. Taking a vitamin B12 supplement is a must for all vegans. Depending on your diet, you may need to supplement with other vitamins and minerals or consume fortified foods in order to consistently meet all your nutrition needs.
As both vegan and low-carb diets continue to grow in popularity, there may soon be additional LCHF vegan options available in grocery stores and restaurants. Until then, return to this page often to help make your low-carb vegan lifestyle as nutritious, delicious, and easy to maintain.
At Diet Doctor, we try to present the strongest scientific evidence currently available, but we understand that you may want to avoid a vegan diet due to personal history, beliefs, or preferences.
If you don’t want to eat a vegan diet, we support your choice.
The British Journal of Nutrition 2018: A carbohydrate-reduced high-protein diet acutely decreases postprandial and diurnal glucose excursions in type 2 diabetes patients [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
Nutrients 2019: Using the avocado to test the satiety effects of a fat-fiber combination in place of carbohydrate energy in a breakfast meal in overweight and obese men and women: a randomized clinical trial [moderate evidence] ↩
Archives of Internal Medicine 2009: The effect of a plant-based low-carbohydrate (“Eco-Atkins”) diet on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in hyperlipidemic subjects [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
BMJ Open 2014: Effect of a 6-month vegan low-carbohydrate (‘Eco-Atkins’) diet on cardiovascular risk factors and body weight in hyperlipidaemic adults: a randomised controlled trial [moderate evidence] ↩
Although the quality of protein in different legumes varies, many appear to be about 20-50% less digestible than animal protein:
This is based on the consensus of the US and Canadian dietetic associations:
In many studies, people who restrict carbs to less than 50 grams per day lose weight and improve their blood sugar control:
Nutrition & Diabetes 2017: Twelve-month outcomes of a randomized trial of a moderate-carbohydrate versus very low-carbohydrate diet in overweight adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus or prediabetes [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
Peanuts are technically legumes, but they’re often grouped with nuts because of their similarities. ↩
Mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water; let the mixture sit for 15 to 20 minutes before using. ↩