Ask A Vegan Lifestyle Coach: Can I Eat Higher-Protein / Lower-Carb And Still Be Vegan?

April 3rd, 2016 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health

high protein low carb vegan

I recently got an email from a reader that went something like this:

I’m an on-again off-again vegetarian looking to go vegan. My doctor recently told me that I have to decrease my carbohydrates and increase my protein (she said it had to be animal protein) in order to lose the weight I gained when I went on a new medication. I already eat a lot of beans and some fake meats as well, but she told me that these aren’t a good substitute. I need to know what kinds of non-animal, low-carbohydrate protein options are out there. I really want to stay veg but I don’t know how to do this. I would really appreciate your help!

And as I was writing bak to her, I realized that I was sharing this info for like, the bazillionth time. In other words, I have gotten this question or similar questions a whole lot, so it occurred to me that I might as well just go ahead and share my answer here on the blog! And thus a new series was born: Ask A Vegan Lifestyle Coach.

So here’s my answer, to her and now to all of you . . .

I’m so sorry that you’re dealing with unwanted weight gain, and I actually agree with your doctor when she advises that increasing your protein intake while decreasing your carbs may be able to help you manage that. However, I disagree (shocking, I know!) that the protein needs to come from animals. Humans are able to extract quite a bit of concentrated protein without resorting to meat-eating, and you don’t even necessarily need to eat the processed vegan meat analogues if you’d rather avoid them. The following are a few of my favorite high-protein plant foods:

It sounds obvious of course, but tofu! tofu! tofu! I would load up on it if I were you. It’s high in protein, has a little fat (the good kind), and is relatively low in carbs. When buying tofu, opt for organic whenever possible.


Spicy sesame tofu + soba bowl, with noochy tofu, 100% buckwheat soba noodles (with 8 g protein and only 33 G carbs per serving) and steamed broccoli (4 g protein, 12 g carb per cup) — recipe here.

Other legumes, like beans, also offer good protein, but they tend to come with more carbs. So here’s a good tip: if you’re doing a greens/beans/grains bowl, you can skip the grains to reduce the carbs, and let the beans and greens take center stage. Lentils with steamed kale or steamed broccoli is a favorite of mine, covered with a delicious sauce like The Tahini Sauce That Done Stoled My Heart or a Spicy Cilantro Peanut Sauce. I like to add extra flavor with green onions, pickled vegetables or sauerkraut or kimchi, and/or avocado. If you just serve beans and steamed greens alone, it will be super boring (of course). But if you add a mouth-watering sauce (nut- or seed-based will add extra protein) with those extra “flavor-makers” on top — well there you have a delicious, satisfying, and high-protein meal!

Just make sure you skip the grain (especially high-carb grains like rice, barley, or corn), unless you are opting for a protein-rich grain (like quinoa, amaranth, or wild rice).

Buckwheat is one of my favorite higher-protein grains. You can eat it whole as “kasha”, or you can find 100% buckwheat noodles (make sure they’re 100% because usually they’re cut with refined wheat which makes them more of a carb) for awesome noodle bowls. Stir fried veggies with chickpeas or tofu or seitan (“wheat meat” made from vital wheat gluten, aka wheat protein), served over buckwheat noodles, is simple and delicious and much higher in protein than a normal stir fry or a normal noodle dish. I order my 100% buckwheat soba noodles in bulk packs online, here. They can be hard to find but if you’re in a bigger city I’d check your local co-ops and health food stores.

red lentil pasta

High-protein pasta with homemade “cheeze” sauce, plus steamed broc on the side. Easy peasy and protein powereful.

Speaking of high-protein noodles, there are a few brands on the market that are making pasta out of legumes. They are super high in protein (like 23 g per serving) which is awesome, and they make things SO easy! I mean, pasta with red sauce becomes a high-protein, low-carb meal! I love Tolerant Foods the best (they make all different shapes and styles from red lentils, green lentils, and black beans), and there’s also a brand called Explore Asian which makes spaghetti and fettuccine out of mung beans, black beans, soy beans, and more. Honestly I love all of the high-protein pastas!

Breakfast can be hard as a vegan, and tends to be pretty carb-centric. Tofu scramble is good, but can feel repetitive if you’re eating a lot of tofu dinners. Recently a few new vegan yogurts hit the market, and they’re FINALLY higher in protein like their dairy counterparts. My favorites are Kite Hill and Daiya, both of which have 6+ grams of protein per container. These should be available at Whole Foods or other health food stores.

My other go-to high-protein vegan breakfast is my old favorite, the chickpea flour pancakes. They remind me of omelets and since they’re made from legume flour, they’re super high in protein. I have the recipe for mine here.

The thing about most vegan protein sources is that they *DO* come attached to some carbs. So the strategy becomes this: you have to eat lots of these awesome vegan protein sources, and you have to include more of them in your diet wherever possible. And then, you ALSO have to eliminate errant and unnecessary carbs elsewhere in your diet. So like I said above, instead of the greens/beans/grain bowl, just do a greens + beans bowl. Instead of wheat pasta, use a high-protein legume-based pasta. Instead of a wheat bun or bread on a sandwich, put the patty on a bed of kale, or wrap it in cabbage leaves. Instead of making a burrito, pile all the burrito fillings in a bowl on top of lettuce, minus the tortilla. Replace snack foods like chips, crackers, and popcorn, with less carb-centric options like kale chips, nuts or seeds, or carrots sticks with guacamole. All of these little alterations will add up throughout your day.

So bottom line, if you can increase the plant-based proteins while simultaneously lowering the non-veggie carbs, then there’s no reason why you won’t be able to have an optimal protein-to-carbohydrate ratio — all the while remaining veg.

I hope that helps, and good luck with your journey!


Hey-o! So hey there, I am a certified Vegan Lifestyle Coach and I have a BA in biology, but I’m not an MD, an RD, or any other kind of “D” for that matter. I am super duper not a doctor, or a nurse, or a health care practitioner of any kind. This post represents my personal thoughts and opinions and is in no way meant to be taken as medical advice. Okay? Whew!

  • lysette

    This is an awesome resource to share Sayward! Clear, concise and well put. I know for many of us the protein question seems redundant but still the belief that animal sources are the only way persists. Thanks for adding this to the conversation. Hope this helps your client <3

  • Sarah C.

    Any thoughts on what the proper (for a person like the questioner, who wants to shed a few pounds) balance of carbs and protein is? I’ve been aiming for a 40/20 split (with 40% for fat — the good kind, natch), but even so that feels hard to maintain that low level of carbs (120g for a 1200 calorie diet). Just a handful of dried plums (my snack of choice, with 24g of carbs) can throw that whole thing out of proportion and make it nearly impossible to stay at 120 for the day. A salad with gobs of tofu (for 18 g of protein) can also clock in a 24 g carbs — and I really don’t think it’s the salad or the fruit that I want to cut from my diet! Ok, enough frustrated ranting and back to my original question: do you have thoughts on the ideal breakdown of carbs/fat/protein? Thanks!

  • stephie137

    This is good one! Nicely done.

  • Lisa

    Thank you!
    Once again you proofed why I always recommend your site as the place to dig for information. Thank you so much.

  • Jennifer

    I just… dunno.

    Is there really any evidence that carbs cause weight gain? Your reader says she’s* an on-again/off-again vegetarian- meaning she eats meat at least occasionally, and probably cheese, ice cream, what have you. Not that I disagree with your meal recommendations, but just… is it necessary to eliminate or even reduce grain intake? I mean, I’d certainly take her doctor’s advice with a grain of salt… after all, she seems to be recommending Atkins, or at the very least Paleo (but I repeat myself). So… couldn’t she just go fully plant based and keep her calories in the weight loss range and be just fine? On that note, is there any evidence that anyone has been unable to lose weight while maintaining a calorie deficit? I’ve heard from so many people who say they’ve cut calories and been unable to lose weight, but have yet to find any studies confirming this. Also, have you ever gone into detail about why you went gluten free? I’ve seen your post about failing health as a vegan (which is fabulous, btw), and I understand that you believe it was causing fatigue and moodiness. But as far as I can tell, gluten-free diets are much worse in that respect. Is there a reason you chose complete abstinence versus moderation?

    *used she, rather than he/she, because gender was not revealed, and gosh that’d be tedious

  • jill

    I think it depends on age, activity, etc…as I am getting older, and as I have three high-energy, homeschooled children and many other high-energy needs, I am needing more protein than I did when I was 32 and had one baby. I think you just need to experiment. For me, the vegan diet that made me feel so alive and light when I was younger doesn’t work now. I’m also confident that my dietary needs will continue to evolve as I age and my lifestyle requirements change.

  • Rachel Deines

    If you want to lose weight, you do NOT have to go low carb!! Going low carb will work, at first, but its enough to drive someone crazy after a while. Its not sustainable long term. Our body NEEDS carbohydrates, its where we get our energy. I mean, do you know anyone who has been doing Atkins for years and years? I think for this person, going completely whole foods plant based style will work. It has worked for so many people. Just cut out all the excess oil and processed stuff. Forks Over Knives style.

    High Carb Hannah on youtube is a great example of someone who has lost 55+ lbs eating a ton of carbohydrates, just lower fat. There are so many inspiring people and stories on youtube of the high carb low fat vegan lifestyle. It really seems to be the way to go to lose weight, and actually keep it off! Plus they all feel incredible because they’re getting that glucose to the brain :)

    Just my two cents as someone who has been looking into this for a few years now. This is, however, a wonderful source for protein alternatives! :)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi Rachel, thanks for weighing in. I think it really does depend on the person — I very much believe in bioindividually, and that the macronutrient needs from person to person can vary quite a bit. And also, that the macronutrient needs of a single person can vary as well, over the course of a lifetime or under different circumstances.

    That said, I would like to clarify a few things. I know that the body needs carbs, and I would never promote a super low-carb, Atkins-style diet (without medical reason). What I have presented here is a plan for a lowER carb diet — one which replaces simple carbs with satiating proteins and good fats. It’s a diet that I have seen work wonders for numerous clients.

    I know that the HCLF/no-oil/80-10-10/fruitarian/starch-based crowd is very, VERY vocal on the internet. However I disagree with a lot of what they promote. I have a science background and I am well versed in nutrition literature, and I find a lot of the high-carb messaging to be rigid, dogmatic, and overly-simplistic. I think this is especially true (and especially misleading/dangerous) on YouTube.

    I know for me personally, cutting out oil wreaks havoc on my body. My skin dries out, my hair dries out, I get depressive and moody. So just to say “cut out the extra oil” like Forks Over Knives or Engine 2 or many of the other leaders like to say . . . well, it’s not so simple! It sounds like that works for you and I’m glad you found a plan that has helped you feel your best. But it’s simply not the best plan for everyone. So what I am presenting here is a plan for someone who has been instructed, by their doctor, to curb carbs and up their protein intake. Different strokes for different folks, ya know? =D

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi Jennifer,

    I do’t know what kind of research you might be wanting re: “carbs cause weight gain”. I think that’s an overly-simplistic approach and not really anything that could be proven or disproven. It reminds me of the old “calories in, calories out” approach to diet and weight maintenance, which again, is just very simplistic and doesn’t factor in the myriad of variables that contribute to metabolism, weight gain, weight loss, etc.

    For this person, it’s not about “carbs cause weight gain” so much as it’s about eating foods that will provide energy while offering a sense of satiety and long-lasting fullness. Many people who eat carb-heavy meals experience a burst of energy that then quickly dissipates, and they find themselves hungry again very soon. Over time, they will consume more calories when they are caught in this cycle.

    On the other hand, eating meals that are denser, higher in protein and fat, will give a sense of fullness that will stick from meal to meal, without a need for between-meal snacking. This is why higher protein/lowER carb works for *some* people.

    For clarity though, I want to emphasize that I was answering a specific question form a specific person who was acting on advice from her doctor. I was not attempting to be prescriptive with my advice. I very much believe in bioindividuality, which is something that distinguishes me from the vast majority of gurus, leaders, and YouTubers on the Internet (and not-so-coincidentally, is not something you can “package and sell”). I am not in any way saying *everyone* should eat higher protein/lower carb in order to lose weight. No way! Just that this would be a way for *this* person to eat that way, while being vegan.

    Re: me being gluten-free, I eat this way because gluten makes me feel like poo. It sucks and I hate it. I would NEVER suggest it for someone who wasn’t gluten sensitive. I don’t believe everyone should be gluten-free and I don’t believe it’s a superior way to eat at all. Oh god I miss burritos! I am all about less restriction wherever possible, not more — and that’s always how I council my clients. But for me, there is not moderation with gluten. I have tried. I even had Jeremy secretly gluten my food because I was worried that my reactions were psychosomatic. But they’re not. I just feel like shit when I eat gluten. That’s just the way it is for me. =(

    But, it’s a sensitivity that developed with pregnancy, as sensitivities and allergies so often do. And for that reason, I hold out hope that someday it will “un-develop”. And then I will eat ALL THE BURRITOS.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Great questions!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Aww, thanks Lisa! Love hearing that, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Thanks Steph!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi Sarah,

    I don’t feel comfortable making generalizations about “optimal” macronutrient ratios because honestly, I believe (more than anything else) in bioindividuality. I believe that everyone is different!

    Which means, if you’re finding it hard to maintain that low level of carbs, and you’re finding that you’re not losing weight, well — maybe lower carb is not the optimal diet for your body?

    Also, I feel like I want to say that knowing nothing about your height, your weight, your medical history, and your activity level — 1200 calories on a plant-based diet is very little. Like I said, I don’t know anything about you so I’m definitely speaking generally (which I realize I just said I don’t like to do), but that feels overly-restrictive and potentially harmful for overall health if continued over the long term. I would be concerned about a client who was eating that little amount of calories. I know it’s the standard “weigh loss” number for traditional diets, but I don’t believe those traditional diets are healthy, especially not when you add vegansim on top. That’s just my personal opinion, and you are certainly free to take it or leave it, but I’d feel like I was doing you a disservice if I didn’t at least mention it.

    I agree with you that the salad or fruit is not necessarily what you want to cut. Although dried fruit can be very high in sugar, which can be less than optimal for some people (sugar-spike an then crash, not long-lasting energy). Could you switch from dried fruit to a denser, more slow-burning fuel (like almonds or cashews, or carrot sticks with guacamole, or fresh berries with hemp seeds, or coconut yogurt, or something like that?)

    Hope that helps. Thanks for weighing in!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    I agree Jill, different people need different things and there’s no such thing as “optimal for all”. As well, even the same person may experience different needs throughout their lifetime, depending on age, activity level, etc. I’m sorry your dietary needs have changed – I hope you’ve been able to figure out a new way of eating that still allows you to feel your best. ♥

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Thanks so much Lysette! I know protein is such a contentious issue in vegan circles (so silly). Anyway, glad you found it useful!

  • Sarah C.

    Well, I was rather afraid you’d say that. And I don’t disagree, at root, that the standard message from weight-loss “experts” should be taken with some salt. But honestly, I’ve seen many of your day-in-the-life posts and my day of eats doesn’t really look very different than yours.

    But, let’s say for the sake of argument that I was speaking in specifics only for the sake of an example. My real question was about ratios, which stay the same even if the amounts increase or decrease. Do you have standard advice you give on that? Or do you even really think, perhaps, (as other commenters have suggested, and I myself think sometimes) that the whole “low carb” thing is phooey in and of itself?

    (And the prunes are usually eaten with almonds for a protein hit and satiety but I rely on the prunes themselves for, uh, “secondary” benefits to my digestive system, so – no, they’re not going to depart my diet, ever!).

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Man, it bums me out to hear you say that about my WIAW posts. I really struggle with even doing those at all, because although I get so much great feedback from people who find them inspiring and full of ideas, I also sometimes hear from people saying what you did here – that it looks like I eat 1200 calories a day. That’s not your fault of course, I guess it’s mine, and I need to work harder to accurately represent portion size. Or something. I don’t know what. But good lord, if I ate 1200 calories per day I would be a starving wild-eyed maniac!

    But enough about calories, because I know that was not really your question. Again, I don’t have standard advice because I really, truly believe that there is NOT a standard! (it really helps explain all the conflicting nutrition reports – both published/peer reviewed and anecdotal – if you think about it)

    For example, this person who wrote to me was following a doctor’s advisement to eat lower carb and higher protein, so that’s the direction I went. I’ve had a lot (like a LOT) of clients who felt drastically better after shifting their macronutrients away from carbs and towards fat and protein, so it’s something I feel confident speaking about.

    I’ve also had other clients who eat a lot of carbs. I had a Japanese client who ate rice at almost every meal. She also ate low fat. And she felt great! I would never in a million years have advised her to “go low carb”. I don’t believe in going low carb or not going low carb, like as a thing. I believe in doing what works for your body, and that that will be different for every body.

    For me? Higher carb, especially with a lot of fruit, and *especially* with no oil/low fat, UGH. It makes me feel like I’m dying. But hey, 3,000 blond 22-year-olds on YouTube can’t be wrong, so who am I to speak for anyone else?

    Which is my point. I get very, very wary of the leaders – and there are a million and a half of them – giving blanket, prescriptive advice to their audience.followers. I mean I get it, it sells books and it gets pageviews. I just don’t think it actually addresses the complexity of human bodies.

    But I digress. I know this opinion makes me the oddball on the Internet. As for you, I can’t give you a prescriptive macronutrient ratio, but I can ask you questions. Mainly why ARE you trying to keep your carbs so low? Are you trying to lose weight and trying a low-carb diet to do it? It sounds to me like you’re eating great stuff — salads with legumes, healthy fats, prunes and almonds. It sounds pretty balanced to me. Is there something about your current diet that makes you think you need to keep your carbs under 20%?

    PS – Fiber never worked for keeping my digestion moving along, but for some reason, fat works like magic. Avocado and coconut oil are AWESOME. Worth experimenting with if you experience digestive disruption. ;-)

  • Sarah C.

    Well, my purpose was NOT to bum you out about your posts – just to point out that I eat three full nutrient-dense meals a day and a 200-calorie snack. Every day. (And I’m sorry that people dog you about those posts – SO not my intention).

    AND, I’ll point out that I said 40% carbs, not 20%. AND, I’ll say that I agree with you 1000% that generalized internet “wisdom” is to be mainly ignored. My query was really just because you see so much conflicting advice (from nutrition professionals; I don’t watch 22-year olds on youtube!) about the best macro ratios and I am forever fiddling with my own goals–precisely in order to determine what’s best for me.

    (And it’s not the fiber per se that I need – but prunes specifically; there’s something magical in those little gems. They’re also delicious and FILLED with nutrition and antioxidants–they’re higher in most nutrients than even the most expensive “superfoods”. And I’ve never had any blood sugar issues with them, perhaps especially because I usually eat them with an ounce of nuts. All of which is to say, they’re for me – perhaps not for everyone, but they are most definitely for me!).

  • Sarah C.

    At least, I INTENDED it to say 40% carbs (40% carbs/40% fat/20% protein is what my myfitnesspal profile currently has). Sorry if I was unclear (and as I read it again, I think I was).

  • Jennifer

    Anytime people are trying to hit certain macros (ie high protein, low carb, high carb or whatever) I always suggest signing up with Cronometer. You can do it for free, and track you food. It can be a pain to plug in EVERY SINGLE NUMBER and add recipes and stuff, but you will notice you will need to do it less as you start building a larger recipe index. Unless you are recovering from an eating disorder, you will start to see numbers come together faster.

    I always recommend it because the numbers aren’t as simple as “oh I had an egg so I have x amount of protein” for a vegan diet you will want to check your protein from your carbs, your veggies, and everything. And as Sayward said above, vegan “protein” usually have carbs attached to them, so you will want to pay attention to that. And then there are veggies that you might over estimate the carbs you are getting from them, since we have the tendency to just think of vegetables as carbs.

    Anyways, I used cronometer to try out a high protein diet, and it was really handy. It does also make it easier to cut out carbs since it will show where you get most of your protein, vitamins, etc and it makes it easier to think “Well that bagel has 12 grams of protein, but it ate up most of the carbs I could have in a day” I don’t use it everyday, I just use it as a way to just watch what I am eating from time to time.

  • Liv Reiners

    Love these posts! Such a balanced and thoughtful approach! Please do more! Thank you!

  • Martine van Haperen

    Great post! This is pretty much how my partner and I eat (or TRY to eat, when cookies and chocolate aren’t getting in the way). I recently started a blog about eating low carb as a vegan, because there are so few good resources out there for people who want to eat this way. There aren’t a lot of posts on there yet, but maybe your client can get some inspiration from it:

  • Angie

    I really appreciate this post. This is something I really struggle with. I eat far too many carbs as a vegan and have trouble fitting in the right amount of protein. I am going to try some of these tips. <3

  • Sonja

    Love this new category on the blog!

  • Michelle

    I’m an omnivore and the carb struggle is real! I have spent a lot of time tweaking my diet and my body has taught me it is ok with carbs before noon but not after. That’s why I do all my meatless meals in the morning :)

    I would love to see some low carb – high protein recipe posts in the future! My roommate has been embracing the meatless monday trend but has really struggled with this too.

  • Kate

    Would love to see some recipes. I’ve been a wheat/gluten free vegetarian for a long time but recently became a wheat/gluten free vegan. Wow, what a difference. I feel great, I’m not ill anymore. I’ve realised dairy really didn’t suit me. My face is not a puffy mess anymore and I don’t feel sick. I eat buddha bowls, a different one every day. So filling and with lots of different components, it makes me feel naughty because the food is so tasty. I also no longer snack as the bowl is filling and satisfying. Barely any carbs in it!

  • Jessica Minguez

    I keep coming back to this post, so I thought that I might comment on it, even though I know you might not see it.

    I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes, then Type 2 diabetes about a year and a half ago. I sort of always knew I would get it; all of the women in my family have it, though I would also say that if T2D runs in my family, so does the inability to say no to a brownie. :)

    In hopes of staving off the T2D diagnosis, I switched to a Drs. Barnard-MacDougal-Esselstyn type of veganism and my HA1c skyrocketed. I was cutting my fats further and further; my doc begged me to upped my protein and fat, but I was SO SURE that if I could lose the extra fifteen pounds I had hanging around through a HCLF diet, that I would be okay.

    Finally, my doc offered me a blood glucometer. I could see how various meals and foods would affect my blood glucose in real time. I now know, with data to back it up, that grains like rice and corn send my numbers through the roof–like a quarter cup of brown rice sends me up into the 200s. I’d gone back to an omni diet in hopes of bringing my numbers down, and now that I feel like I mostly know what various foods do to my blood sugar, I’m ready to transition back to more vegan meals. Tempeh and tofu are both really great for me, but it’s been a tough road not being able to have rice with my tempeh black bean chili or toast with my tofu scramble. (And by that I mean first-world tough, not counting-pennies-to-feed-my-family tough.)

    Looking back at this post gives me ideas to try and the wish to get back to a diet that aligns with my beliefs. It reminds me that even when I am SO SURE of my food dogma, as I was that HCLF would solve all my health issues, it is through living our lives as an n=1 case study that we find what each of our optimal way of eating is.

    Thank you for being generous, thoughtful, and open-minded in your advice, and just bad-arse in general, Sayward!