The ketogenic diet has become a health industry buzzword in the last few years, it’s one of the best tools for losing weight and keeping it off. The keto diet, which reduces carb intake to around 20 to 50 grams per day, while eating moderate amounts of protein and liberal amounts of healthy fats – causes the body to start breaking stored fat down into ketones for energy. The result is lower inflammation, better weight loss, improved insulin response, and lower cholesterol. ((pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24176230/))
With that said, the typical ketogenic diet is synonymous with eating bacon, meat, cheese, eggs, and butter. Is there an alternative for people who prefer a plant-based lifestyle? Or could there even be benefits to using keto within the confines of a vegan keto diet?
Let’s take a look at what a well-formulated vegan keto diet looks like, how to do it, and mistakes to avoid along the way.
How to create a keto vegan diet plan
Understanding net carbs versus total carbs
The first thing to do with vegan keto is to understand the difference between net and total carbs. Keto aims for 20g of net carbs per day or lower. You calculate net carbs by taking total carbs and subtracting fiber. This means if you splurge on a cookie that’s 20 carbs, not only is that bad, but it blows your allotment of carbohydrate for the day. If, however, you eat 20 carbs worth of spinach, since spinach is 75% fiber, you only end up with around 4g of net carbs.
This might sound confusing at first but it’s quite simple, and this is the biggest benefit to vegetarian and vegan keto diets. We avoid processed carbs on keto for 2 reasons:
- Too much glucose prevents ketosis as our bodies will want to use blood sugar and glycogen first. Remember, you can’t do keto unless you’re in ketosis.
- Carbohydrates in excessive amounts or all at once without the blunting factor of fiber or protein will cause your insulin to spike. This insulin spike can also throw you out of ketosis.
A person who takes most of their calories from leafy, fibrous plants has more effective carbohydrates to work with during the day. Aim for between 30-50 net carbs per day on vegan keto, as long as your carbs are coming from non-starchy vegetables. Don’t let the increase in carb allotment steer you towards sugar or that defeats the whole purpose.
Be sure to focus on low carb, high-fiber vegetables for your vegan keto diet.
What are the staple foods of a plant-based keto diet?
Vegetables cooked in fat are your best bet, as they will fill you up and digest slowly. This is one of the biggest boons of a vegan keto diet; eating only plants ensures you get the micronutrients that keto dieters can sometimes miss because they adhere so strictly to meat-and-cheese eating plans.
Some low carb veggie options include:
- Spinach, kale, and lettuce varieties
- Cucumber and pickles (especially pickles for the sodium)
- Green beans
For the most part, as long as you avoid starchy vegetables like potatoes, turnips, beets, and corn, you’ll be fine on a vegan diet diet.
Veggies that are great in moderation are:
- Summer squash/patty pans/butternut squash
- Chayote squash
- Brussels sprouts
Fruits are largely not recommended on keto, but berries are extremely nutrient-dense and acceptable in small amounts. Keto-compliant berries include:
- Blueberries (in much smaller amounts, no more than 1/4 cup a day)
- Strawberries, again in small amounts
- Avocado is a godsend for keto, especially vegan keto. Their macronutrient profile is perfect – you can eat one avocado per day if you can swing it. A daily avocado also provides magnesium and potassium, which are needed on a keto diet.
Avoid elderberries, gooseberries, and grapes as their sugar content is much higher and these fruits may kick you out of ketosis.
Be sure to add nuts to your vegan keto diet as well! Nuts are full of fat and as long as you choose well, they’re high in fiber and low in carbs. The best nuts for snacking on keto are:
- Macadamia nuts
You can eat peanuts in moderation, although peanuts are technically a legume and not a nut. Sugar-free peanut butter is a great source of protein, but it should be limited to one serving per day. This is because peanuts are more carb-dense. The same with cashews, as they have a very high carb content compared to other nuts.
Get your fat from healthy mono-unsaturated fats like olive, walnut, macadamia, avocado, or coconut oil. Avoid processed and seed oils like the plague – canola, vegetable, and peanut oil are all highly inflammatory and high in PUFAs (poly-unsaturated fatty acids).
Get adequate protein
Getting adequate protein is often the most difficult part of a vegan keto diet. The good news is that on a keto diet, you only want moderate amount of protein. You may need a little more protein if you’re working out regularly.
Some great sources of low carb vegan protein are:
- Lupini beans
- Black soybeans
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Nut butter (again being careful about cashews and peanuts)
If you’ve heard that soy raises estrogen and you’re worried, don’t be – the study that most people reference regarding soy was based on sheep and it’s deeply flawed.
Getting enough Vitamin B12
Because vitamin B12 occurs naturally in animal products and not in vegetables or fruits, you’ll need to get it fortified in your foods. Some great sources include:
- Fortified nut milk
- Vegan meat substitutes
- Nutritional yeast
- Vegan protein powder (it’s often an add-in)
Like folate and essential amino acids, Vitamin B12 is difficult, but not impossible to get on a vegan-based keto diet.
Pitfalls and problems vegan keto dieters face
Getting enough Vitamin B12, essential amino acids, and healthy fats can be a big obstacle on a vegan keto diet. The biggest problem with keto diet adherence is not planning your meals. If you get caught and hungry and need to eat, but you don’t have keto-compliant food available, this will increase the likelihood you’ll cheat.
Additionally, keto dieters are often woefully deficient in electrolytes – sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Salting your food and eating enough avocado, pumpkin seeds, chia, and other electrolyte-dense foods are all critical. Electrolyte imbalance will affect your energy levels, disrupts your sleep, can cause muscle cramps and heart palpitations.
Differences between vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian keto diets
The hurdles you face formulating a vegan keto diet are much bigger than those of a vegetarian or pescatarian keto diet. You don’t have the option of dairy products and eggs like a vegetarian, and you cannot eat fish like a pescatarian. You’ll need to be far more exacting about tracking your macros at first to make sure you’re able to dial in your upper limit of carbs to maintain ketosis.
Consider getting a blood ketone monitor and checking it after your meals. Intermittent fasting is another good way to ensure your keto diet is performing optimally because it causes long stretches of non-eating where your body has to scavenge blood sugar and convert your own body fat into ketones. Utilize intermittent fasting to drive your keto diet to the next level.
The wonderful thing about plant-based keto is that once you’re aware of what veggies you can and can’t eat, and in what amounts, your eating habits become extremely intuitive. This makes daily cooking and eating much easier and more relaxed.
So if anyone tells you a vegan keto diet is impossible, you can be living proof that it’s both sustainable and healthy.