Published: 09/16/2015

Atkins for Vegetarians

It’s perfectly possible to be a vegetarian—or simply minimize intake of animal protein, add variety to meals and trim the food budget—and still do Atkins. The typical American vegetarian often consumes far too many carbohydrates in the form of pasta and other refined grains. As long as at least two varieties of plant protein are consumed each day, a vegetarian can achieve a balance of essential amino acids. Because plant proteins are “packaged” with carbohydrate, the trick is to consume enough protein without simultaneously getting so much carbohydrate that it interferes with weight management. Assuming egg and dairy intake, it is relatively easy to do Atkins as a vegetarian, starting in Phase 2, Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL). 

To adapt Atkins to the needs of an ovo-lacto vegetarian:

  • Start in Phase 2, Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL), at 30 grams of Net Carbs. Advance by 5 grams of Net Carbs each week or every few weeks, as long as weight loss continues, until 10 pounds from weight goal.
  • Eat Induction-acceptable vegetables, known as foundation vegetables —which will constitute the majority of carbohydrates, and gradually add acceptable Phase 2 foods. These include most nuts and seeds and their butters, berries and a few other fruits, plus legumes. Add back nuts and seeds before berries as the former contain fat and protein, which will make Atkins easier to do and more effective.
  • Add Phase 2 foods in the order listed on the Carb Ladder, with the exception of all unsweetened dairy products (but not milk, whether whole, skim, low fat, or no fat and buttermilk), which should come before berries.
  • Or, if the patient needs to lose no more than 20 pounds and is willing to swap slower weight loss for more food variety, he or she may start in Phase 3, Pre-Maintenance, at 50 grams of Net Carbs.
  • Make sure to get sufficient protein in eggs, cheese and soy products. Aim for no more than 6 grams of Net Carbs per serving of protein foods in OWL.
  • Meat substitutes may be made from textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy protein (tofu and tempeh), wheat gluten (seitan) and even fungi (Quorn), among other ingredients. There are numerous soy and rice cheeses, soy burgers and other analogues. A more comprehensive list of these foods appears in Acceptable Induction Foods: Soy and Vegetarian Products. Some of these products contain added sugars and starches and some are breaded, so it is necessary to read the list of ingredients carefully.
  • Most non-animal protein sources (except for tofu and nut butters) are low in fat. Be sure to get enough healthy oils in other dishes by dressing vegetables and salads with olive oil, canola oil, high-oleic safflower, walnut, flaxseed and other oils so as not to interfere with fat metabolism. Also enjoy high-fat snacks such as half a Haas avocado or some olives. 
  • If desired, legumes can be reintroduced before other OWL-acceptable foods. But do so in extreme moderation (2-tablespoon servings), using them to garnish soups or salads.
  • Tempeh, made with fermented soybeans, is higher in protein than tofu and more flavorful. Avoid tempeh products that include rice or another grain until Pre-Maintenance.
  • Shakes made with plain unsweetened soymilk or, almond milk, soy or hemp protein powder, berries and a little sweetener can make a tasty breakfast.
  • Pure silken tofu with berries and other fruit in shakes, adding peanut or almond butter for added protein; or saut? firm tofu with vegetables for lunch or dinner.

What to Expect

After a week at 30 grams of Net Carbs, assuming weight loss of two or more pounds and the absence of cravings, it’s time to move up to 35 grams. As long as weight loss continues, add another 5 grams of carbs every week or several weeks until 10 pounds from goal weight. At this point, it’s time to transition to Phase 3, Pre-Maintenance.

For vegetarians who eat no eggs and dairy: 

  • Dairy substitutes tend to be lower in carbs than their counterparts, although some cheeses are actually higher. Read the labels, as always. As long as these products don’t contain added sugar or fillers, they’re acceptable on Atkins. 
  • Products such as vegetarian “bacon,” “sausage,” “burgers,” and “meatballs” usually contain just a few carbs per serving. Seitan is made with wheat gluten (the protein component of wheat) and is used for many meat analogs. It can be stir-fried, but its texture improves when it is simmered, braised or oven-baked. ​
  • Substitute crumbled silken tofu for scrambled eggs—a pinch of turmeric provides an appealing yellow hue. For baking, use an egg substitute product.
  • Even some vegetarian products, such as Quorn, as well as shakes, may contain eggs or whey. Read labels carefully.
  • Mayonnaise made with soy instead of eggs, mixed with crumbled tofu, chopped celery and onions, and a little curry powder makes a tasty eggless salad.
  • Silken tofu and soy creamer can be used in desserts; use agar-agar in jellied desserts.
  • Non-dairy “sour cream” and “yogurt” go nicely with berries.

Pre-Maintenance and Beyond

Whole grains usually loom large for vegetarians, and starchy vegetables are often important components of meals. However, they’re among the very foods that may have played a role in weight gain. These foods (and legumes) need to be reintroduced carefully and regarded as side dishes, rather than the mainstays of a meal. Over time, individuals may find that they can tolerate larger portions as long as they steer clear of refined grains and most processed foods. Vegetarians should diverge from the Carbohydrate Ladder by adding back starchy vegetables, followed by whole grains, before higher-carb fruits (other than the berries and melon acceptable in OWL).
Phase 2, 3 and 4 meal plans for vegetarians can be found in The New Atkins for a New You.

Also see: Atkins for Vegans.