Low-Carb (But Not Paleo) Diets for Vegans

Low-carb diets are nothing new. The first book promoting carbohydrate restriction for weight loss, Eat Fat and Grow Slim, was published in 1958. And I can remember the wildly popular The Drinking Man’s Diet of the 1960s (which restricted carbs but allowed as many martinis as you wanted).

Carbophobia gave way to fatphobia in the 1980s (it seems like we’re always scared of something), but it’s an approach that never really went away. Today, however, low-carb proponents are much more likely to embrace a so-called Paleo-style diet. It’s a different spin on low-carbohydrate eating since Paleo advocates avoid dairy foods and processed meats.

But a true Paleolithic diet wasn’t necessarily low in carbohydrates. Best estimates are that pre-agricultural people got about 35 to 50 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Their diets were about 30% protein and 20 to 35% fat, although actual intakes probably varied a lot over different regions. The carbohydrates would have come mostly from vegetables, tubers, and fruits with only small amounts of grains and maybe even smaller amounts of wild beans. (1-4)

Paleo advocates say that eating this way lowers risk for chronic disease. And compared to the way most Americans eat, it probably does. Modern Paleo diets are rich in vegetables, higher in good fats, and completely devoid of processed foods like refined grains. Consuming more vegetables and nuts and fewer doughnuts and soft drinks can only improve your health. Paleo advocates also recommend avoiding all grains and beans (more food phobia), but the evidence doesn’t support that recommendation.

I hear quite often from vegans who would like to cut back on carbs and eat more protein, and sometimes from those who even want to eat a more Paleo-style diet. I’m not at all opposed to boosting protein intake, which may have benefits for some people. Higher protein intake is associated with satiety so it can be beneficial for those trying to lose weight. And it might help to protect muscle and bone mass for older people or for those who are shedding pounds. Building muscle mass might help reduce insulin resistance, too.

But I don’t think we need to aim for those Paleo levels of 30% to reap the benefits of protein. And it would be pretty hard to get protein intake that high on a vegan diet without also having high intakes of either carbohydrates or fat. Most of our protein-rich foods come packaged with one or the other (carbs in beans; fats in nuts and seeds).

The researchers who study the Eco-Atkins diet have devised a vegan diet that is about 30% protein, but it’s just not a very realistic plan for the average vegan. I think a more practical approach for vegans who want to eat a little more protein and less carbohydrate is to aim for a diet that is about 20% protein, 30-35% fat and 45-50% carbs. It’s relatively easy to do so, and I think a lot of vegans already eat this way. It’s really the best of all worlds since it allows you to pack in a little extra protein and healthy plant fat, while still eating plenty of satisfying and comforting carbs. There is nothing Paleo about this plan, though; it’s much too big on legumes—which I think is a good thing.

Here are some guidelines for tweaking vegan diets to boost protein:

  • Emphasize beans over grains. They are more nutrient-rich in general and more protein-rich specifically. Ultra-low carb diets discourage them, but that’s a mistake since these foods have so many wonderful health benefits.
  • Choose high-protein grains like quinoa. Some breads are high in protein, too.
  • Include nuts in your menus and opt more often for the higher-protein choices like peanuts (which are actually legumes) and almonds.
  • If you like them, include soyfoods in your diet. They really are protein superstars in vegan diets. (If you are allergic to soy protein, you might want to try hempseed tofu.)
  • As long as you aren’t among the minority of people with gluten intolerance, seitan can be a good way to enhance protein intake.
  • Keep in mind that, unless they are protein-fortified, plant milks other than soy are very low in protein.
  • Emphasize vegetables over fruits and choose higher-protein veggies like spinach and broccoli most often.

Here is an example of a menu (about 1800 to 1900 calories) that gets about 20% of calories from protein and 50% from carbs:

Breakfast
1 cup tofu
2 slices bread
2 tablespoons avocado
1 wedge cantaloupe

Snack
Vegan chili with
½ cup black beans
½ cup textured vegetable protein or seitan
½ cup tomatoes

Lunch
1 cup quinoa with 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, and tahini dressing (2 tablespoons tahini plus lemon juice)
2 cups raw spinach

Snack
Apple
2 tablespoons peanut butter

Dinner
2 cups cooked collards topped with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 cup baby lima beans

1. Konner M, Eaton SB. Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later. Nutr Clin Pract. Dec 2010;25(6):594-602.
2. Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, et al. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Nov 2 2010;107(44):18815-18819.
3. Milton K. Hunter-gatherer diets-a different perspective. Am J Clin Nutr. Mar 2000;71(3):665-667
4.  Eaton SB. Paleolithic vs modern diets—selected pathophysiological implications. Eur J Nutr 39;67-70.
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19 Responses to Low-Carb (But Not Paleo) Diets for Vegans

  1. Toad June 6, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    The association of nuts with protein is a pet peeve of mine, most nuts are not only relatively low in protein on a per calorie basis but the protein is often poor quality as well. Even in the case of almonds, almonds are only 13% protein which is about the same amount found in oats and the protein in oats is much higher quality (oat protein is almost complete). Yet few people associate oats with protein.

    There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to recommend, in general, nuts over grains for protein, on average they are about the same (per calorie) and if anything the protein in grains is higher quality.

    Without the use of protein supplements or protein isolates I think its hard to get over ~15% protein on a plant-based diet.

    The “best estimates” of the macro-nutrient profiles of what people at before agriculture are more or less guesses.

    • Angelina June 8, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Fats are generally associated with satiety and low carb diets are alternatively called high fat diets. This is one reason that you’d recommend nuts over grains.

      I’ve been eating vegan for 7 years or so and I’ve tracked my food using a food tracker at various times and without protein supplements, I have been easily able to get my protein % above 15.

      • Toad June 13, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

        Fats are associated with satiety in popular culture which is probably due to their much higher calorie density. That is, by volume, fatty foods are going to be more satiating but not necessarily per calorie. But I was discussing protein, nuts are often recommended for protein but are, in general, a worse source than grains since they contain around the same amount per calorie as grains but its lower quality.

        How did you get your protein above 15%? You’d have to eat a lot of legumes, especially soy, and minimize low/no protein foods like fruit and oils.

        • Ariann June 19, 2014 at 8:19 am #

          I always eat over 15% of my calories from protein. The base of my diet is seitan, tofu, tempeh, and legumes, along with non-starchy vegetables. I also eat a few handfuls of nuts a day.

          • Toad June 20, 2014 at 9:21 am #

            Right, so you’re relying on an isolated protein (seitan) and make heavy use of soy. Just as Ginny’s example uses a protein isolate to get up to 20% and is rather low in fruit, has no sugar and seems to make little to no allotment for cooking oils.

            As per my original comment, its hard to get over 15% protein or so without the use of protein supplements/isolates. A whole foods oriented diet with 3~4 servings of legumes, plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and 1~2 servings of nuts is usually going to land somewhere between 10~15% protein depending on how many low/no protein foods (fruit, oil, sugar, etc) are consumed.

            • Dan June 24, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

              There is no evidence that seitan, tofu, tempeh or isolated protein is harmful or less preferable than a whole foods diet.

              • Toad July 1, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

                Sure there is, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the health benefits of whole grains, legumes, nuts, etc and there seems to be none that show the same thing for protein isolates. There are very few studies on protein isolates so we really don’t know their long-term impact.

                Not suggesting someone should avoid traditional soy foods, instead that to get your protein much above 15% your diet will have to be heavy in soy and/or include protein isolates. One shouldn’t over rely on soy.

  2. Dan June 7, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    I am with you on this. An overload of carbs, especially processed carbs, is a real risk factor for metabolic syndrome, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. I limit my grain intake to 4 slices of ezekiel sprouted flaxseed bread and 2 tablespoons of wheat germ per day. I once had metabolic syndrome. However, the paleo diet is not the answer (at least for me), as it gave me severe hypercholesterolemia. Low-carb veganism (modest amounts of fruit and modest amounts of whole grains) works well from both an ethical and health point of view.

    • unethical_vegan June 16, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

      And I had metabolic syndrome a decade ago and a diet that is very high in simply carbohydrates works for me. The Pritikin and Kempner diets allowed simple carbohydrates and produced truly stunning results (albeit small scale) in the treatment of diabetes and CVDs. IMO, much of the current “high protein” low refined/processed food diet is simply a fad. There is very little evidence that moderate consumption of processed or refined plant foods is associated with risk.

      I should also note that the definitions of processed and refined are utterly devoid of any medical/scientific meaning. Al dente linguine has a lower glycemic index than many whole grains (corn, rice, oats) and is a terrific source of resistant starch.

      • Dan June 20, 2014 at 6:44 am #

        Unethical_vegan,

        1) What do you mean by simple carbohydrates? Are you referring to flour and sugar (sucrose, fructose)?

        2) Linguine has a lower GI because of the way starch molecules are linked together structurally within pasta, and how they are absorbed (slowly).

  3. Marion June 8, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

    Solid dietary advice. Certain veggie burgers are hi protein-the vegan Boca burgers for example. I know not everyone eats them but in enjoy them

  4. Elken June 9, 2014 at 3:04 am #

    What about defatted nuts? It sounds like a good solution but are there any downsides? If someone regularly eats them please tell us, for example the ways you use them.

  5. Melanie June 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    This is a really helpful post. Perhaps someday the Paleo-style eaters will try a vegan diet, when they need more success (like Dan). It would be nice to see more people choosing a healthy and ethical lifestyle.
    Interestingly, Nutritionfacts.org published a video last week called “How much protein to vegetarians and vegans get?”. It was almost the same as North American meat eaters. Protein is really a non-issue.
    Another study I saw recently showed that 0% of men between 20 and 50 got the RDA of fibre. (Fibre is also involved in satiety, too, of course). So our focus, as North Americans, is really misplaced.

  6. Catherine @ Chocolate & Vegetables June 23, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Really interesting article! I find that I “feel best” with about the macronutrient ratios you suggest. In particular, I find I function much better throughout the day if I start off with a relatively high (~20g) protein breakfast.

  7. Jon Wheeler July 28, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    Hi Ginny

    Can you explain how you came to the conclusion that the diets of pre-agricultural people were about 30% protein.

    • Ginny Messina August 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

      This is the conclusion of nutritional anthropologists who study diets of pre-ag people based on archeological evidence.

      • Jon Wheeler August 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

        30% just seems wildly out to me. A lot of anthroplogists nowadays seem to be saying that the real paleo diet was largely plant-based, so unless they were eating copious amounts of beans with their occasional animal food I can’t see them hitting 30%.

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