There’s no doubt tofu belongs in a low-carb diet. For starters, most types of tofu are very low in net carbs. Beyond that key point, tofu works as a protein alternative to meat and poultry, is low in calories and provides heart-healthy unsaturated fats for energy. Because it’s made from soy milk that’s curdled then pressed to remove moisture, don't eat tofu if you’re allergic to soy.
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Net Carbs Contained in Tofu
Tofu is naturally low in net carbs, which are tallied by subtracting fiber from total carbs. You’ll get 2 to 3 grams of net carbs in a 4-ounce serving of soft, regular or firm tofu. Any way you look at it, that fits with a low-carb diet, which may include anywhere from 20 to 150 net carbs a day, depending on the plan. However, it’s still important to check the carbs in the tofu you buy. Some products have three times more net carbs, which may be too high if you’re in a phase that tightly restricts carbs.
Baked tofu products also work on a low-carb menu, but watch the portions. Several brands have 2 to 4 grams of net carbs, but that's for a 2-ounce serving. Other brands of baked tofu contain 10 to 12 grams of net carbs in a 3-ounce serving.
Tofu is also used to make meatless hot dogs, sausage patties and kielbasa, which you can enjoy in small portions on a low-carb diet. One link of tofu sausage and a 4-ounce serving of kielbasa have 4 to 6 grams of net carbs, while a typical tofu hot dog only has 1 to 2 grams.
Weight-Loss Benefits From Tofu
Low-carb content isn’t the only reason tofu is a good choice for a weight-loss diet. Tofu is also an alternative source of protein, delivering 7 to 10 grams of complete protein in a 4-ounce serving. Foods that are complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids. While animal proteins are complete, most plant-based foods lack some amino acids. That makes tofu an important protein for anyone following a vegetarian diet.
Don't forget that during a low-carb diet, you need enough protein to prevent the body from breaking down muscles for energy. Protein also helps you lose weight other ways: it makes you feel full, doesn’t boost blood sugar and may trigger fat burning.
Even though low-carb diets don’t focus on calorie intake, it’s still good to know that a serving of tofu only has about 60 to 80 calories. Another benefit you’ll gain from tofu is that 60 percent of its calories come from fat, which your body needs for energy when you’re cutting carbs. Even better for your health, most of the fats in tofu are cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fats.
Other Soy Products on a Low-Carb Diet
Unsweetened soy milk, which is used to make tofu, is the only form of milk on the list of acceptable foods for the induction phase of the Atkins diet. One cup of plain unsweetened soymilk has 2 grams of net carbs, compared to 10 grams in sweetened soymilk and 22 grams of net carbs if you go for chocolate soy milk.
If you’re a fan of other soy foods, like roasted soybeans, edamame or miso, you’ll be glad to know they’re all low in net carbs. Red or brown miso has 3 grams of net carbs per tablespoon, but white miso contains zero carbs. Snack on 2 tablespoons of soy nuts, which are roasted soybeans, and you’ll only get 3 grams of net carbs. Finally, 1/2 cup of green edamame has 3 grams of net carbs, while the same portion of canned black edamame has just 1 gram.
Tips for Using Tofu
The three types of tofu -- soft or silken, regular and firm -- have different uses based on their consistency. Firm tofu has a dense texture, so you can cut it into cubes and use it in dishes in place of proteins like meat, poultry and fish. Soft, or silken, tofu has a custard-like texture that works well in dressings, dips and sauces. The consistency of regular tofu is between the other two. Think of it as a substitute for ricotta cheese or scrambled eggs.
Firm tofu absorbs the flavor of seasonings and sauces, but first it must be drained and dried. If you bake it in the oven for about 25 minutes, it will be dry enough to ensure maximum absorption. Baking also gives it a more meat-like texture.
Make a one-dish meal by marinating cubes of tofu in a mixture of chili sauce, soy sauce and garlic, then stir frying the tofu with bok choy, celery, onions and sprouts. You can also make a salad wrap using tofu as the basis. Cut tofu into thin slices, then marinate them for an hour in your favorite dressing. Pan-fry the slices until they’re light brown, let them cool and then wrap them in lettuce along with cheese, cucumber, radishes and a touch of dressing.