The Vegan Keto Diet: How To Do It & What To Eat
So, you're adamant about avoiding animal products, but you're still keto-curious? While a vegan diet and a keto diet may initially seem incompatible (after all, one conjures images of tofu and the other bacon), an increasing number of experts say they're not mutually exclusive and that a vegan keto diet has the potential to be quite healthy—if you do it right.
Here, we explain how to do a vegan keto diet (which goes a step beyond the mostly plant-based keto 2.0 diet), the potential benefits and risks, and who may want to try it.
What is the vegan keto diet?
The "regular" keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet that typically relies on animal products (think eggs, grass-fed dairy, plain full-fat yogurt) since these foods offer an easy way to hit your daily fat quota and contains few carbs.
"A vegan keto diet follows the same principles [as keto] but without any animal-derived products, like meat and dairy," says cardiologist and plant-based diet proponent Joel Kahn, M.D.
The ideal macronutrient breakdown (i.e., percentage of your daily calories coming from fat, protein, and carbs) for a keto diet typically looks something like this:
- Fat: 65 to 85%
- Protein: 15 to 35%
- Carbohydrate: 0 to 10% (This typically works out to no more than 50 g total carbs or 20 to 30 g net carbs daily. Net carbs = total carbs - fiber.)
Minimizing carbs and maximizing fats shifts the body from burning predominantly sugar/carbohydrates as fuel to burning fat in the form of ketones, which are molecules produced by the liver from fatty acids. When this occurs, a person enters nutritional ketosis, a metabolic state that contributes to keto's benefits of increased satiety, weight loss, improved brain health, and more.
Some experts have expressed concern that—depending on how it's formulated—a traditional keto diet may be too high in animal-based saturated fats and low in heart- and gut-friendly fiber.
Vegan diets, on the other hand, contain no animal products and often pack plenty of fiber due to a higher intake of fiber-rich plant foods. Often, though, they're low in fat and high in carbs, especially if they lean heavily on grains, starchy vegetables, beans, lentils, and packaged products. But if you strategically forgo these carb-rich foods in favor of healthy fats (think avocado, nuts, seeds, and certain oils), you can stay vegan and achieve nutritional ketosis
Potential health benefits of the vegan keto diet.
While there have been health benefits associated with vegan diets, keto diets, and various characteristics of each diet (like eating lots of veggies or consuming fewer carbs), studies on the vegan keto diet are severely lacking, but some experts still find it promising.
"No studies demonstrate long-term outcomes of a vegan keto or low-carb plant-based diet, but people may find that their measurable health risk markers improve," says Carrie Diulus, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon who personally follows a vegan keto diet to help manage her type 1 diabetes and maintain a 100-pound weight loss.
Diulus sometimes recommends vegan keto (and other dietary approaches) to her patients to prep for and recover from surgery as well. "I often have patients with weight problems and diabetes, and a ketogenic diet is often beneficial," she says. It also "has the potential to help improve their cholesterol."
While more research is needed to really establish any of these benefits, here are some possible ways a vegan keto diet may boost your health.
Diabetes and blood sugar balance
"For people with metabolic syndrome or diabetes, there is mounting data that a ketogenic diet can help improve blood sugar control," says Diulus. In fact, studies have shown that, among type 2 diabetes patients, following a low-carb keto diet led to improved glycemic control and a reduction (or discontinuation) of diabetes medication. Because vegan keto diets are equally low in carbohydrates and also tend to be high in fiber (which is also key for blood sugar balance), it may have a similar impact.
If you have diabetes, always check with your doctor before starting a vegan keto diet so you can appropriately alter your medications—otherwise, serious side effects may occur.
Reduced hunger and weight loss
Keto diets are known to have an appetite-suppressing effect, which many experts chalk up to the satiating nature of fats, improved blood sugar balance, and ketone production. And when you're not hungry, it can lead to significant weight loss.
In fact, in a six-month study comparing the low-carb, vegan "Eco-Atkins" diet (which was not technically keto as it was quite low in carbs) to a higher-carb lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, the Eco-Atkins dieters experienced more weight loss.
Additionally, there are a number of anecdotal reports of the vegan keto diet significantly suppressing appetite. Last year, plant-based cardiologist Danielle Belardo, M.D., who was initially very anti-keto, embarked on a two-week vegan keto experiment, which she detailed in this Twitter thread. Her take? Not only did she end up getting into ketosis while eating loads of veggies and plenty of fiber, but "the appetite suppression was SO intense!" she said. "Between the ketones, MUFA/PUFA, and fiber, I lost 2 lb. despite trying SO HARD to not lose any weight."
In addition to more weight loss, participants on the Eco-Atkins diet from the aforementioned study also experienced better cholesterol measurements than their higher-carb, vegetarian diet counterparts. This is important, as many patients and medical experts worry about increases in cholesterol when consuming high amounts of animal-based fats.
"In people wishing to reduce their LDL, a plant-based keto diet can be very high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and has polyunsaturated fats in whole food forms like those found in nuts and seeds," says Diulus. "All of these things have been shown to help lower blood lipids."
Other experts, like Ethan Weiss, M.D., agree that vegan keto diets and mostly plant-based keto 2.0 diets may be significantly better for cardiovascular health: "As a cardiologist, I do have concerns about the tremendous increases in LDL cholesterol some people see when eating conventional ketogenic diets," he explains. "Replacing foods high in animal-based saturated fats with foods coming from mostly plant- and fish-based sources mitigates against this and leads to improvements in cardiovascular risk markers we care about."
While no actual studies link vegan keto diets to reduced pain, it's one of the big reasons Diulus sometimes recommends them in her practice. It happens because certain ketones produced by the liver during ketogenic diets are strong anti-inflammatories. Beta hydroxybutyrate, for example, inhibits COX2, inhibits the NLRP-3 inflammasome, and activates AMPK, which are all helpful for reducing pain, she says.
Sometimes the pain reduction is even enough to avoid surgery. "I had a patient who was scheduled for a complex surgery to fuse the spine from the front and the back because of severe nerve pain," Diulus says. "The patient started the ketogenic, plant-rich, high-omega-3 diet that I put her on, and she improved so much from six weeks of the diet, we ended up canceling her surgery." With the use of keto diets, she's also seen patients use much less pain medication after surgery and have lower rates of surgical complications.
Side effects of the vegan keto diet.
While Diulus personally benefits from a vegan keto diet, as do some of her patients, she stresses that there's a spectrum when it comes to diets, and it may not be for you. "Some people do amazingly well on a low-fat, plant-based diet, and some people do great on a carnivore diet. It's about figuring out what works best with your body and how you feel the best," she says.
Registered dietitian Abby Cannon, R.D., also cautions people not to jump on the vegan keto train without thinking long and hard about why they want to do it and weighing the potential risks—because there are a few significant concerns.
"It's very difficult to adhere to while also ensuring that you're getting enough nutrients and not developing disordered eating habits," says Cannon. "If you don't consume soy products, it's hard to ensure that you receive enough protein, given that you have to cut out whole grains and beans—staple protein sources in a vegan diet!" Like all vegan diets, vegan keto will also be deficient in vitamin B12 and potentially low in iron and other nutrients, so Cannon recommends a comprehensive multivitamin if you do try it.
Vegan keto may also be pretty hard to sustain unless you're particularly motivated. "It's unlikely that anyone can stick to it long term, and any rapid weight loss experienced is likely to come right back on once you return to your normal eating habits," says Cannon, noting that many of the healthiest, longest-living people in the world eat legumes, whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables—all of which are a no-go on a vegan keto diet.
If there's a medical reason for needing a ketogenic diet, the vegan keto diet might be an option, says Cannon, but it's extremely important that when trying any restrictive diet that you do so with the support of professionals to ensure that you're meeting your nutritional needs and doing it for the right reasons. That said, if you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a history of disordered eating, you should definitely pass on this diet, she says.
Additionally, your vegan keto diet may also result in side effects that are somewhat typical of all keto diets, especially ones that aren't balanced, including a temporary but drastic upswing in cravings, moodiness, and fatigue (often called "keto flu"); too much weight loss; hair loss (especially if you're not getting enough protein); and imbalances in electrolytes, which get flushed out when you lose water weight. To offset electrolyte imbalances, Diulus recommends increasing your sodium intake a bit and supplementing with magnesium.
And, if you're doing everything "right" and still don't feel good, vegan keto may just not be for you—and that's OK. In fact, Belardo switched back to her higher-carb vegan diet after her two-week vegan keto experiment because she was losing too much weight and missed some of her favorite foods, including fruits. (Here are some signs a keto diet just isn't working for you.)
What to eat on a vegan keto diet.
To help ensure you're getting a variety of nutrients on a vegan keto diet, "It is essential to eat a variety of nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and low-carb protein sources," says Diulus. The good news: While vegan keto is low in carbs, it doesn't have to be low in fiber. That's because, as long as you're going no higher than 20 to 30 grams of net carbs (which is total carbs minus fiber), you'll still get into ketosis. Just be sure to load up on high-fiber, low-net carb foods such as leafy greens and nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower.
If you find a vegan keto diet too restrictive and you're willing to include some animal products, you can also experiment with a vegetarian keto diet.
With guidance from Diulus, here are some vegan keto-friendly foods you can choose from, with macronutrient breakdowns based on a typical serving size. Pro tip: To check the nutritional information of any food, check out the USDA's FoodData Central database.
- Zucchini (Carbs: 0.9 g, Fat: 0.1 g)
- Celery (Carbs: 1 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Cucumber (Carbs: 1 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Spinach (Carbs: 1 g, Fat: 0.1 g)
- Asparagus (Carbs: 1.1 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Cauliflower (Carbs: 1.5 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Cabbage (Carbs: 1.6 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Broccoli (Carbs: 1.9 g, Fat: 0.1 g)
- Green beans (Carbs: 2 g, Fat: 0 g)
- Brussels sprouts (Carbs: 2.5 g, Fat: 0.1 g)
- Spaghetti squash (Carbs: 10 g, Fat: 0.5 g)
- Strawberries (Carbs: 7.7 g, Fat: 0.3 g)
- Blackberries (Carbs: 10.2 g, Fat: 0.5 g)
- Raspberries (Carbs: 11.9 g, Fat: 0.7 g)
- Blueberries (Carbs: 14.5 g, Fat: 0.3 g)
- Coconut flakes (Carbs: 3 g, Fat: 10 g)
Plant-based fat sources:
- Avocado (Carbs: 4 g, Fat: 8 g)
- Olives (Carbs: 6 g, Fat: 11 g)
- Avocado oil (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 14 g)
- Olive oil (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 14 g)
- Coconut oil (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 14 g)
- Full-fat coconut milk or cream (Carbs: 1 g, Fat: 12 g)
Nuts and seeds:
- Pili nuts (Carbs: 1 g, Fat: 22 g)
- Walnuts (Carbs: 2.8 g, Fat: 16.5 g)
- Brazil nuts (Carbs: 3.3 g, Fat: 19 g)
- Pine nuts (Carbs: 3.7 g, Fat: 19.1 g)
- Macadamia nuts (Carbs: 3.7 g, Fat: 21.5 g)
- Pumpkin seeds (Carbs: 3.8 g, Fat: 11.8 g)
- Pecans (Carbs: 3.8 g, Fat: 20.8 g)
- Peanuts (Carbs: 6 g, Fat: 13.9 g)
- Almonds (Carbs: 6.1 g, Fat: 14 g)
- Sesame seeds (Carbs: 6.6 g, Fat: 13.9 g)
- Sunflower seeds (Carbs: 6.7 g, Fat: 13.9 g)
- Flaxseeds (Carbs: 8 g, Fat: 6 g)
- Chia seeds (Carbs: 12.3 g, Fat: 8.6 g)
- Tofu (Carbs: 2 g, Protein: 10 g, Fat: 6 g)
- Tempeh (Carbs: 10 g, Protein: 16 g, Fat: 4.5 g)
- Edamame (Carbs: 15 g, Protein: 17 g, Fat: 8 g)
- Black soybeans (Carbs: 8 g, Protein: 11 g, Fat: 6 g)
- Lupini beans (Carbs: 13 g, Protein: 12 g, Fat: 1 g)
- Pea protein powder (Carbs: 2 g, Protein: 21 g, Fat: 1.5 g)
- Seitan (wheat-based, contains gluten) (Carbs: 10 g, Protein: 16 g, Fat: 2 g)
Foods to avoid on the vegan keto diet:
If you're following a vegan keto diet, you obviously want to avoid all animal-derived products, including the following:
- Collagen powder
- Whey protein
You also want to avoid, or significantly reduce, the consumption of foods containing moderate to high levels of carbohydrates on a vegan keto diet—even the ones typically considered healthy on most vegan diets. These include:
- Grains and grain-based foods: rice, quinoa, cereal, pasta, bread, crackers
- Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, peas
- Fruit: pretty much all fruits, except berries
- Sugars: table sugar, maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, agave
- High-carb alcohol: beer, wine, sugary cocktails, hard cider
- Ultraprocessed, packaged foods, even if they claim to be keto (whatever the health claim, packaged and processed isn't a great idea)
Vegan Keto Diet Menu: 5-Day Meal Plan
While you can certainly mix and match the vegan keto foods above as you see fit, here's an example of a meal plan. (And if you're curious about what Diulus eats in a day, here's her personal vegan keto meal plan.)
Breakfast: Keto green smoothie made with baby spinach, frozen raspberries, avocado, nut milk, pea protein, and a flavor booster like fresh mint or matcha
Lunch: Mixed greens salad topped with avocado, hemp seeds, lupini beans, various nonstarchy veggies, and olive oil and vinegar
Snack: Celery slices with nut butter
Dinner: Zucchini noodles tossed with vegan pesto (basil, walnuts, EVOO, and garlic) and sliced cherry tomatoes
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with tomatoes and spinach
Lunch: Creamy broccoli soup made with full-fat coconut milk, vegetable stock, and herbs
Snack: Keto chocolate mousse made with avocado, cocoa powder, and a bit of stevia (or a tiny bit of real sweetener, like maple syrup)
Dinner: Spaghetti squash with caramelized onions, roasted Brussels sprouts, lupini beans, and a hefty drizzle of olive oil
Breakfast: Chia pudding made with a high-fat nut milk (like Elmhurst) or canned coconut milk, berries, and unsweetened coconut flakes
Lunch: Lettuce-free salad made with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, olives, edamame, and olive oil and vinegar
Snack: Almonds and unsweetened coconut flakes
Dinner: Broccoli and tempeh stir-fry
Breakfast: Raspberries, a handful of walnuts, and matcha tea blended with coconut oil
Lunch: *Cauliflower rice made with scallions, ginger, onions, peas, chopped carrots, sesame seeds, and tofu
Snack: Red bell pepper slices with guacamole or mashed avocado
Dinner: Cauliflower crust pizza topped with tomato sauce or vegan pesto, mushrooms, peppers, and onions
*Since you don't need a lot of peas and carrots in cauliflower rice, it can still be considered vegan keto as long as you're watching your intake of total carbs elsewhere.
Lunch: Thinly sliced purple cabbage (or bagged "coleslaw mix") tossed with sesame oil and unseasoned rice vinegar, topped with edamame and sunflower seeds
Snack: Cucumber slices, celery, or bell peppers dunked in nut-based vegan cream cheese (like Kite Hill)
Dinner: Shirataki noodles with veggies, almond butter and coconut aminos sauce, and tofu
Bottom line on the vegan keto diet.
While much more research (particularly long-term studies) is needed to establish the true benefits of a well-formulated vegan keto diet, some experts believe it can be done well and that there are likely legitimate perks when it comes to weight loss, blood sugar control, heart health, and even pain reduction.
However, the restrictive nature of the diet can be triggering for those with a history of disordered eating and may also lead to nutrient deficiencies unless carefully formulated with the right foods and supplements. Overall, a lot is still up in the air, but if you choose to try a vegan keto diet, strongly consider enlisting the support of a registered dietitian.
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