Vegetarian and vegan diets are gaining popularity. According to a report by research firm GlobalData, there’s been a 600 percent increase in people identifying as vegans in the U.S. in the last three years alone, so plant-based lifestyles are clearly catching on. Another diet that’s quickly climbing the popularity charts is the ketogenic, or “keto,” diet. This eating plan calls for the restriction of carbs by following the LCHF (low-carb, high-fat) principle. Essentially, by reducing carbs, the body’s forced to break down and use fat for fuel instead, a process called ketosis.
Vegans and vegetarians already eliminate a great deal of foods from their diet. So the concern is that adding keto rules on top of that might be too restrictive. But, experts say that it’s technically possible to follow a vegan (or plant-based) ketogenic diet.
“A completely vegan or plant-based keto diet would require the elimination of all animal-derived foods (including all meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and other animal fats and products, like bone broth or butter), plus nearly all sources of carbohydrates,” explains Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., doctor of natural medicine, chiropractor, clinical nutritionist, and author. “This results in a limited diet that’s going to be hard to follow and [will be] repetitive.”
In addition to a plant-based keto diet being limited in nature, Dr. Axe explains that there’s also a high probability that someone on this diet would struggle to consume enough calories and essential fat-soluble vitamins. This could potentially lead to certain nutrient deficiencies and side effects, like fatigue, as a result. “If you’re at all open to the idea, I would highly recommend that you consider a vegetarian keto diet instead of a vegan keto diet. Include at least some animal products in your diet, such as pastured eggs or fermented cheeses or, even better, wild-caught fish like salmon,” he says. “These goods are great sources of protein, fat, choline and fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A and K) that are very difficult to get from plant foods alone.”
If you are vegan or vegetarian and plan to try the keto diet, here are some easy food swaps that Dr. Axe recommends you eat to ensure that you’re getting an adequate intake of the nutrients that you need.
Eat enough fat.
Fat is important on the keto diet, but especially so if you are vegan or vegetarian. “Aim to get 75 percent or more of your calories from plant-based fats like coconut oil, coconut cream/butter, MCT oil, olive oil, avocado, and—in lesser amounts—nuts and seeds,” says Dr. Axe. “Keep nut and seed consumption to about 1/4 cup per day (or two tablespoons of nut butter), since these do provide some carbs and can also be hard to digest in large amounts.” To help with absorption of minerals, he recommends soaking or sprouting nuts first.
Eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables.
Starchy veggies, such as potatoes and corn, are carb-heavy, which is a no-no on the keto diet. Still, as a vegetarian, you’re likely going to consume veggies for every meal. Aim for variety. Include leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, mushrooms, onions, asparagus, etc. “Sea vegetables are also great additions to your diet since they provide iodine and other key minerals,” says Dr. Axe. “For help with digestion and gut health, also try to include fermented veggies in your diet every day, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.”
Have plant-based proteins, but not too much.
Dr. Axe recommends getting no more than 20 percent of your daily calories from plant-based sources of proteins, since eating too much protein will interfere with ketosis. “Most beans and legumes will contribute too many carbs to your diet and too little protein,” he says. “The best sources of low-carb protein are plant-based protein powders (like hemp, brown rice, or pea protein) and fermented soy products like tempeh.” Other plant-based sources of protein in your diet can include nutritional yeast, nuts and seeds, and even vegetables.
Check ingredient labels carefully.
Reading ingredient labels is also important. You should know what’s in the food that you put into your body! Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet are used to checking ingredient labels to make sure that they’re not unknowingly consuming an animal product or byproduct. When on the keto diet, you have to look out for food that contains sugar and flours. They can interfere with ketosis. “Don’t consume any added sugar from desserts, juice or soft drinks, grains, beans or legumes. Instead of consuming sugar or even honey, try using stevia extract or monk fruit to sweeten meals,” says Dr. Axe. “Even starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and beets provide carbs that can interfere with ketosis. These should be avoided or [eaten] in very small amounts.”
Take a multivitamin.
When you’re restricting certain food groups from your diet, it’s even more important to take a multivitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps. “If symptoms like fatigue, aches, weakness, moodiness, and trouble sleeping persist for more than two weeks, consider ending the diet and consuming a larger variety of foods,” says Dr. Axe. “It’s usually recommended that the keto diet is followed short-term, for about three months at a time (up to six months). Although, it’s important to always listen to your body and make changes if you’re reacting negatively.”
It’s totally possible to follow the ketogenic diet while also following a plant-based diet. Be wary of limiting your diet too much, though, as you work towards ketosis. Experiment with different types of produce and plant-based proteins to maintain variety in your diet and ensure you’re getting the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.