The Low-Carb Vegetarian

David Mendosa Health Guide February 24, 2008
  • My friend Barry may have a problem. Last Thanksgiving he found out that he has diabetes.

    Many people go into denial when they get the news. Not Barry, who immediately took control of his condition with a low-carb diet, stepped up exercise, and the medication that his doctor prescribed.

    So that's not his problem. His problem may be that he is a committed vegetarian.

    "But I don't think of it as a "problem," Barry says. "It's more of a discovery -- searching to find out where the carbs are in veggies."

    When Barry told me that he was a vegetarian, I replied that low-carb vegetarian was not easy, but possible. I added that I knew of three reasons why people make that choice.

    1. Some people think a vegetarian diet is healthier. We have some evidence for this from studies of groups like Seventh-day Adventists.

    2. Others won't eat animals that they wouldn't kill themselves -- and they won't intentionally kill any of them. This is the ethical position championed by Professor Peter Singer.

    3. Those of us concerned about the environment recognize the huge inefficiencies of processing our protein through the stomachs of livestock. Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world, according to a comprehensive report, Livestock's Long Shadow -- Environmental Issues and Options, that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published two years ago. Livestock is also a major source the the degradation of our land and water.

    It is this environmental concern that attracts both myself and my favorite Certified Diabetes Educator to a vegetarian diet. But we haven't gone there -- not yet anyway.

    Barry replied that he is a vegetarian for all of those reasons and for a fourth one:

    4. For the past 37 years he has been a vegetarian. "I learned by studying yoga and related Hindu Ayurvedic teachings back in the early 1970's in U.S. and India," he told me. "I experimented with what's recommended as a yogic or sattvic diet, thought to improve mental clarity and promote benefits for meditative practices."

    Being a vegetarian limits what Barry can eat. Some of the low-carb mainstays -- meat, poultry, and fish -- are off the table. If he were a vegan -- a vegetarian who won't eat any animal products like eggs or dairy -- the restrictions would be even greater.

    Eating low-carb limits Barry's food choices in a different way. Grains, beans, most root vegetables, and rice have to be off his low-carb table.

    What's left? Plenty. A low-carb vegetarian has a surprisingly wide variety of great food choices.

    But strangely, neither Barry or I have been able to find any books to guide people with diabetes to low-carb vegetarian living. If any readers know of good resources, please let us know with your comments below.

    David and Barry (right) on the Mesa Trail near Boulder, Colorado

    So let's start to work on one here. Of the three main macro-nutrients -- carbohydrates, protein, and fat -- neither vegetarianism or low-carb living has any problem with fat. And fat generally provided the majority of the calories on any low-carb diet.

  • Unless you are a vegan -- a vegetarian who uses no animal products of any kind -- dairy products and eggs are great sources of fat as well as protein. Most cheeses, plain yogurt (especially Greek yogurt), and small servings of kefir are particularly good low-carb vegetarian choices.

    It turns out the vegetables are not a problem either. Low-carb diets can and do include many tasty and healthy one. I reviewed the "Good Veggies" here.

    In fact, the only low-carb vegetarian problem might be protein. But it really isn't.

    Meat and fish are far from our only protein choices. It just requires a little imagination and exploration to find an even greater variety than we ever thought possible.

    We don't even need much protein. The authoritative resource for determining our daily protein requirement comes from the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, which is an independent nongovernmental entity that is nonetheless responsible for the recommended dietary allowances of nutrients in the American diet. It says that adult men need 56 grams of good-quality protein per day and that most adult women need 46 grams. Pregnant women and nursing mothers need 71 grams. That's actually not much -- and some people think we don't even need that amount.

    We have plenty of delicious meat substitutes. Traditional soy products like the Chinese tofu and the Indonesian tempeh top the list. Then we have the texturized soy protein products, like Morningstar Farms Sausage Patties and BocaBurgers, although they may be too high in omega 6 when we eat them too freely.

    A few months ago my favorite Certified Diabetes Educator and I jointly discovered delicious Quorn. Available in the frozen food cases of natural food stores, this mycoprotein product comes in many forms. Two of them, "Naked Chik'n Cutlets" and "Turk'y Roast," are low-carb.

    A few evenings ago Barry re-introduced me to seitan. Introduced here from Asia, this wonderful food is made from wheat gluten In the bad old days I had often eaten seitan sandwiches. Those were bad days because of the wheat flour bread of the sandwiches, not the wheat gluten, which is very low carb.

    Barry steamed some seitan -- available in natural food stores where we live as WhiteWave brand "Vegetarian Stir Fry Strips "-- in the stir fry he made for our dinner. I have also been adding it to my salads.

    You can also read about these and several other meat alternatives in an article from The Vegetarian Journal that is online.

    Vegetarians generally know that a meatless diet needs to be supplemented by a little Vitamin B12. But they also need to make a special effort to get enough omega 3 fatty acids to balance omega 6s in their diet. Most of us get our omega 3 from fish or krill oil, but these non-vegetarian sources aren't the ultimate source of omega 3s.

    Plants are actually where all omega 3 originates. Particularly the leaves of plants. But the best vegetarian source is probably chia seeds.

  • So what's the problem? It turns out that those of us who are committed to a vegetarian lifestyle with a little effort probably can combine it quite well with a low-carb one.