Easy guide to a frugal vegan diet

Adventures in a vegan diet done frugally!

Although the “how do you get your protein” jokes centered around vegetarianism and veganism can try my patience, I have noticed increased satiety when eating a higher protein, higher fat diet while aiming for a similar calorie range. While I don’t plan on sticking to a strict low carb diet long-term, it is easy as a vegan to eat a carb-heavy diet and takes effort to plan lower carbohydrate meals. I’ve noticed I feel much better on a high protein, high greens diet–as a vegan, this requires being a little more intentional. By nature most plant-based foods (grains, fruits, legumes) are heavier in carbohydrates.  

All of the resources I’ve seen on this topic have relied heavily on expensive pre-made goods or niche ingredients, so I am sharing my go-to ingredients for a higher protein plant-based diet. I’ve been careful to watch cost per gram of protein as I try out a higher protein diet. I do want to emphasize that being vegan on a budget is doable and fulfilling (health-wise and ethically)! I find joy in being creative with traditional recipes and hunting for new ingredients. I hope you discover the same.

In general, here are strategic considerations when shopping for ingredients:

  • Price per ounce and price per calorie
    • Consider “how much” you are getting for your dollar. How many ounces or grams is in the package? How much does 100 calories of the ingredient cost you? This is also a useful tool for comparison shopping among stores and brands.
  • Macronutrient ratios
    • Look at the carb/protein/fat ratio of the ingredient. In general, keto ingredients have a ratio of about 5:70:25. This means for every 5 g carbs, there are 70 g fat and 25 g protein. Another way of looking at this is that a keto food product should be approximately 5% carbs, 70% fat, and 25% protein.
    • To find these percentages simply divide! (grams carbs, fat, or protein)/ (total grams of carbs + fat + protein in 1 serving)

Before I move forward, some comments on soy, as affordable plant-based protein options lean heavily on soy products: historically soy has gotten a bad reputation with fears of “containing hormones” as soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones. The fear of these phytoestrogens is largely unmerited and the Harvard University Heath article here breaks down more information on this topic.

Here are affordable ingredients I’ve found to have high protein content:

  • Soy chunks–one of the cheapest sources of vegan protein. It is also super versatile, easy to store for long periods of time, cooks up quickly, and soaks up the flavor of whatever sauce you use. The key to this is not purchasing online but rather at your local Indian or middle Eastern grocery store. Here is what the bag may look like:
  • Vital wheat gluten–will require some planning to cook with and use. I buy this brand, but Bob’s Red Mill can be found at most grocery stores.
  • Textured vegetable protein. Again, Bob’s Red Mill brand is available at most grocery stores, but cheaper sources can often be found online.
  • Chickpea or besan flour–found cheapest at Indian grocery stores.
  • Soy products: tofu and frozen edamame, especially at Asian grocery stores
  • Canned lupini beans
    • Actually a seed, these are much higher protein and lower carb than “true” legumes like chickpeas or blackbeans. You can likely find them cheaper in a local store.
  • Bulk protein powder
    • NOT purchased in a store, the price per pound gets far too expensive. Currently the cheapest source I see is online, and specifically the soy protein isolate at Myprotein.com (not a referral–look for coupon codes).
  • Canned beans (chickpeas, black beans, etc.)–but careful, these are actually relatively high carb and you cannot rely solely on beans to maintain that high protein, low carb ratio!
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter–super cheap, tasty, and one of the cheapest prices per calorie (but because of its high fat content, watch your intake). While other nut butters are also options, they offer comparable macronutrient profiles for a higher price per calorie.

Ingredients I’ve looked to lower my carbohydrate intake (slightly pricier “treat” items for baking):

  • Bulk erythritol–cheapest sugar substitute per ounce, and 1:1 substitute for sugar
  • Almond flour or other nut-based flours (almond is generally the most versatile for baking)

And here are cooking strategies that make a difference:

  • Flavorful low calorie and low cost sauces. Making them myself versus buying premade allows them to have less additives and be significantly cheaper. I also focus on sauces that can be made quickly and prepped in bulk.
    • Ideas: 
    • DIY teriyaki with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, cornstarch to thicken
    • Romesco sauce
    • Sweet mustard
    • Peanut sauce
    • Mushroom gravy
    • Salsa
    • Marinara
    • Carrot ginger miso
  • Embracing bulk meal prep
  • Looking for meal inspiration! Take traditional vegetarian or omnivore meals and use some of your newfound knowledge to substitute ingredients. Who says you have to follow the recipe?

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