Published: 06/27/2024

Vegetarian and Vegan Diets: Lower-Carb Approaches to Plant-Based Eating

With interest in vegan and vegetarian diets growing,(1) chances are you’ve come across at least one patient interested in plant-based eating. The reasons for choosing a plant-based diet are as varied as the people who choose them, ranging from health goals and taste preferences to environmental and animal welfare concerns.(2)

And, “plant-based diets” can mean different things to different people:(3)

  • Lacto-vegetarians avoid meat (beef, poultry, pork, fish, etc.) and eggs but will have dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Ovo-vegetarians avoid meat and dairy but will have eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat but consume both dairy and eggs.
  • Pescatarians will eat fish and seafood but avoid land-based meat and meat products. They may or may not include dairy and eggs.
  • Vegans avoid all animal products.
  • Flexitarians simply try to limit some animal products in their diets. The degree to which a flexitarian avoids animal-based foods is highly individualized.

Protein Sources for Low-Carb, Plant-Based Diets

Absolutely! Low-carbohydrate (low-carb) eating approaches, like the Atkins Lifestyle, are among the most studied diets for weight loss and weight maintenance. And, just as interest in plant-based eating is increasing, more and more people are opting for a low-carb lifestyle.(4) A low-carb, plant-based diet has not only been shown to support weight loss, but may support weight-loss maintenance too, with its emphasis on high-quality protein, healthful fats and oils, and fiber-rich carbohydrates.(5)

But remember: a low-carb diet is not a no-carb diet! A healthful low-carb diet is one that includes fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and other plant-based foods, with options for plant-based proteins to meet the needs of any vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian patient.

Many people are surprised when they learn that low-carb plant-based eating has been studied in randomized clinical trials, showing its not only is a smart tool for weight management, but research has also found they can be a beneficial strategy for reducing heart disease risk factors.(6,7,8) For example, a six-month, randomized controlled trial found that people following a low-carb vegan diet lost slightly more weight and experienced greater reductions in LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride levels.(7)

It’s possible these effects were seen because the lower-carb diet emphasized high-quality plant-based proteins and fats from soy, nuts and vegetable oils, all of which tend to be cardioprotective. This plant-based Atkins diet was dubbed by researchers as “Eco-Atkins.”

A vegan or vegetarian Atkins diet may also be beneficial for patients with diabetes. In a 3-month randomized clinical trial, participants with diabetes who either followed a lower-carb plant-based diet or a reduced-calorie vegetarian diet lost weight, improved blood lipid and HbA1c levels and improved blood pressure.(8)  

Protein Sources for Low-Carb, Plant-Based Diets

There are many protein-rich foods that are vegan and vegetarian friendly. Generally, animal sources tend to offer high-quality, complete proteins that supply sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids. High-quality proteins that many vegetarians and flexitarians can enjoy include eggs and dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese and whey protein.

Additionally, soy and soy products like tofu and tempeh, as well as gluten-based seitan provide vegans and vegetarians alike with strong, higher-quality protein options.

Other plant-based proteins are nutritionally valuable too, and eating a well-planned diet that includes a variety of plant proteins should fulfill all essential amino acid requirements

It’s important to note that plant proteins tend to be a mix of protein and carbohydrates. However, pairing them with non-starchy, foundational vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes – to name a few – is a great way to curb carb intake while avoiding animal-based foods.

10 Foods to Include on a Vegetarian or Vegan Atkins Diet

Here are 10 protein options to support a lower-carb, plant-forward lifestyle:


  • These protein powerhouses cook easily and are inexpensive. Brown/black lentils tend to hold their shape when cooking, making them a good substitute for a meaty texture. Yellow and red lentils tend to be better for soups and stews since they cook to a puree-like consistency.


  • Much like lentils, beans are rich in protein and fiber, with a wide variety to suit various tastes and textures.

Soy milk/soy yogurt

  • Soy is one of the few plant-based proteins that’s considered a “complete” protein. Milk and yogurt made from soy are good dairy substitutes, especially if they are calcium fortified.


  • Crisp and versatile, edamame (or soybeans) are often featured in Asian cuisine and can typically be found in the freezer section of the supermarket.


  • This soy-based ingredient is made from the pressed curd of soymilk. Tofu has a mild taste that soaks up the flavors of the ingredients it’s paired with.


  • Tofu’s fermented cousin, tempeh has a stronger flavor than tofu and a very firm texture but is often cooked in a similar way.

Nuts and seeds

  • These protein-packed healthy fats are versatile for snacking, while nut/seed butters (e.g., peanut butter, sunflower seed butter) also work well in sauces and dressings. Pumpkins seeds have been shown to be an especially good way to get the BCAA leucine when following a plant-based approach.

Nutritional yeast

  • These golden yellow flakes have a cheesy, umami flavor that is great sprinkled onto whole-grain popcorn or vegetables.


  • A seed that cooks like a grain, quinoa is a terrific source of protein and can be used in place of lower-protein pasta or rice.

Plant-based protein powder

  • Getting a protein boost can be as simple as adding a scoop or spoonful of plant-based protein powder (e.g. soy protein isolate, pea protein) to your favorite smoothie recipe.

Looking for Patient Resources?

We know the best way to work with patients is to meet them where they are and figure out a reasonable and sustainable eating plan that will work for them long-term. If you have a patient with vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian eating preferences and who wants to lose weight or make progress toward their health goals, there is an Atkins Diet® for them.

To start: