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:

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

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

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

2 tablespoons peanut butter

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.