I think I'm carbohydrate intolerant/carbohydrate addicted, but I'm a vegetarian. Can I still go on a low carbohydrate diet?

Yes, you can! I've known a few low carb vegetarians, and they've done fine. I've also known some vegetarians who simply incorporated some of the principles of a low carbohydrate diet -- most notably, a higher protein consumption -- into their diets, and were rewarded by improved health and energy.

If you wish to be a low carbohydrate vegetarian, the first thing required is to get over the idea, very wide spread, especially among moral vegetarians, that the body requires very little protein. In my experience, improved health and energy level when protein intake is increased is virtually universal. You also need to ignore the widely touted idea that grains and beans are the "natural" diet of humankind, because they have been the principle diet of the majority of humankind since the Agricultural Revolution. Remember that agriculture was invented approximately 10,000 years ago -- and that by the best estimates of science, humankind has a 2 million year history. That's a very long time during which human beings lived and thrived on a diet that contained very little in the way of grains and beans, but did indeed include meat and other animal-derived foods.

None of which means you can't be a low carbohydrate vegetarian, and be quite healthy! After all, the concept of "natural" when it comes to humans is pretty meaningless. We didn't evolve with central heating, either, but I, for one, don't care to give it up! All it means is that you won't be constructing your vegetarian diet around grains and beans.

So what will you be eating? Well, first of all, all the stuff that non-vegetarian low carb dieters eat that isn't meat! That would mean, of course, plenty of low carb vegetables, nuts, seeds, low sugar fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, mayonnaise, and butter, along with foods that contain healthy fat -- things like avocados and olives. If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you'll also be eating eggs and cheese. (If you're a vegan, you should know that most soy cheeses are indeed low carb.)

The big food group that omnivorous low carbers tend to neglect, but that the vegetarian low carber will likely be consuming in abundance, is soy foods -- tofu, tempeh, okara, soy based veggie burgers, and soy based meat substitutes -- sausage, fake cold cuts, ground beef substitutes and the like. You'll need to be even more vigilant about reading labels than the omnivores, who can generally assume that all fresh meat, poultry, and fish have about the same carb count -- zero -- and the same protein content -- 7g per ounce, cooked. Pay attention to not only carbohydrate content and fiber content, but also protein content, and look for products that have 5 or fewer grams of usable carbohydrate per serving, (subtract the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbohydrate to get the usable carb count), and choose those with the most protein for the least carbohydrate.

Another low carb, high protein soy food that many of you may not know about is textured vegetable protein, or TVP. Even if you haven't heard of it, you may well have had it, since it's often used to make processed foods seem like they have more meat in them than they do. I suspect it's also the basis for a fair number of the vegetarian meat substitutes on the market. TVP is a soy product, made by Archer Daniels Midland, the ultra-huge agricultural company. It comes dry, in granules or in chunks (about dry dog food-sized) -- I can get both at my health food store. Since Bloomingfoods (that's my health food store) only carries TVP in bulk, there was no package for me to read for nutritional info, so I called Archer Daniels Midland. (Hey, you can get just about anybody's phone number if you ask a reference librarian!) Talked to a very nice man named Mike in the research and development department. Here's the lowdown on TVP, nutritionally speaking:

100 grams of dry TVP has:
50 grams of protein -- and that's complete protein.
30 grams of carbohydrate
18 grams of fiber

That means that actually 100 grams of TVP has 12 grams of usable carb, of course.

Now, you wouldn't likely eat 100 grams of TVP! That's a LOT. There's about 80 grams total weight in a cup of the stuff. And TVP grows about 200% when you add liquid, so a cup of TVP would end up being 3 cups when it was rehydrated. I'm figuring about a third of a cup, dry, would be a serving -- that would be about a cup of rehydrated TVP. That would contain 13.2 grams of protein, and 3.16 grams of usable carb. Not bad.

How would you use TVP? It would make a good vegetarian chili, for example. Also, one night recently I was making a new meat loaf recipe, with lots of zucchini and parmesan cheese in it (yes, I'll give you the recipe in a future issue!) for company, and one of my guests was a vegetarian. I mixed together everything but the meat -- the zucchini, the onions, the cheese, the eggs, the seasonings -- and then before I added the ground beef, I scooped out some of this mixture and combined it with rehydrated TVP. I put it in an individual casserole dish, and baked it. My vegetarian friend loved it!

What do you rehydrate TVP with? If you're making that vegetarian chili I just mentioned, the moisture from the tomato sauce and such will do fine. For other recipes, you can rehydrate TVP with boiling water -- two parts water to one part TVP -- but I like to use some sort of seasoning -- bouillon, soy sauce, something like that. Of course, you'll check the carb count on that, too, right? For the zucchini/parmesan casserole, I flavored the water I used to rehydrate the TVP with some Bragg's Aminos, a protein broth you can buy at many health food stores. Gave a sort of "meaty" taste to the TVP.

Anyway, TVP is a versatile and inexpensive vegetarian protein option I thought some of you might have missed; so now you know!

There are also some seitan (wheat gluten) products that are low enough in carbohydrate to qualify as "low carb", but keep in mind that wheat gluten is A) not a complete protein and B) one of the foods most likely to cause unpleasant reactions. I'd choose it less often than the soy products, and eat it in combination with other vegetarian protein foods, if I were you.

Read the labels on everything! Don't assume that because Brand X veggie burgers are low carb, Brand Y veggie burgers are, too. Doing research at my health food store, I found veggie burgers that were made from soy protein, and were quite low carb and high in protein, and I also found veggie burgers that were made from grains, and were very high carb, with little protein. Be aware that seasoning can change the carb count, too -- if the same company makes different flavors of a product -- for instance, Italian flavored tofu, Thai flavored tofu, and Southwestern flavored tofu -- read all the labels on the different flavors!

Also pay close attention to products sold to flavor tofu -- scrambler mixes and the like. They often have starches or sugars in them. You'll do better to season your tofu yourself; buy a good cookbook if you have to.

So there you have the basics of a vegetarian low carb diet: Plenty of low carb vegetables, nuts and seeds, eggs and cheese, soy products, a bit of low sugar fruit, and unprocessed natural fats. A nutritious diet, and a healthy one. Just be aware that as a vegetarian, you'll be getting more carbs with your protein than your meat-eating low carb compatriots, and adjust the carb content of the rest of your diet downward accordingly.

Any concerns, here? Well, just a couple. First of all, most vegetarian meat substitutes cost considerably more per gram of protein than inexpensive meat or poultry would. Especially if you're a vegan, a low carb vegetarian diet could get pretty pricey. Too, vegetarian meat substitutes are virtually all processed -- even tofu is a processed food, to some degree. It's unclear to me what, exactly, the impact of this might be, but I thought I should point it out. (On the other hand, to be entirely fair, ground beef has to be considered at least slightly processed, too. After all, our ancestors didn't just eat the muscle meats, they ate virtually the whole animal.)

Third, the only good sources of iron in a vegetarian low carb diet would be egg yolks, nuts, and a few vegetables -- beans, the most common source of iron in most vegetarian diets, are not suitable for low carbing, except on some of the more liberal, "hybrid" diets, like my Careful Carb diet. Vegetarians may wish to choose such a hybrid diet, or take an iron supplement. (Be aware, though: Iron is a mineral where not getting too much is as crucial as not getting too little. Too little will cause anemia, and make you tired. Too much has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Women of childbearing age are the population most at risk for anemia.) (In case you were wondering, the most absorbable form of dietary iron is called "heme iron", and is found in red meat. Those of us who eat an omnivorous low carb diet shouldn't have to worry much.)

My fourth worry applies only to vegans: I'm convinced that cholesterol is good for you -- it's essential for every single cell in your body -- and a vegan diet supplies none. It is also lacking in DHA, a fatty acid essential for brain function. (There's now some speculation, for instance, that the measurable difference in brain function between breast fed and formula fed babies -- breast fed babies tend to be smarter -- may be due to the fact that breast milk is rich in DHA, while formula has none.) Eggs are a good source of both, so lacto-ovo vegetarian low carbers don't have to concern themselves with this. Also, be sure to eat plenty of the vegetarian sources of healthy fats -- olive oil on your salads, and to sauté things in, avocados on your salad, things like that. A low carb/low fat diet isn't good for you.

One other possible problem occurs to me: Eating out as a low carb vegetarian could become a very difficult proposition. Most vegetarian entrees at restaurants are based on pasta, beans, or rice. I'm afraid I don't know much of a way around this, except perhaps to pick a good local restaurant where they're known for catering, to some degree, to vegetarians, and let them know of your dietary restrictions. They just might come up with a great new tofu dish or tempeh stir fry for you!

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