Vegetarian Keto Diet: Yes, Even Plant Eaters Can Thrive With Fewer Carbs & More Fat
When you think of keto, your brain might picture a big slab of steak with a side of spinach, or one of those ridiculous burgers that swaps out the bun for two meat patties. But while it's true that a good number of people following this trendy high-fat, low-carb eating pattern love their meat (and lots of it), not everyone takes the carnivore approach. Which begs the question, can you successfully follow a ketogenic diet if you forgo the meat altogether? Some experts say yes, but you have to do your homework first. Here's what you need to know.
First, what's the ketogenic diet?
First things first, let's nail down the basics of the ketogenic (or keto) diet. The goal of the keto diet is to burn more calories from healthy fats and protein than from carbs. When following the diet correctly, the body will go into a state called ketosis. Strict dieters are expected to get 80 to 90 percent of their daily calories from fat, 5 to 15 percent from protein, and 5 to 10 percent from carbs.
In the average person, the majority of caloric burn occurs when the body breaks down carbs or sugars. If not burned off, those carbs turn into fat. By focusing on increasing fat and protein in the diet and depriving the body of carbs, you'll start burning the fat and protein and ultimately experience greater weight loss.
Beyond weight loss, the ketogenic diet has been shown to ease symptoms in a range of different medical conditions. Low carb diets like keto have been proven to help ease diabetes symptoms, increase "good" cholesterol levels, and even aid in managing brain disorders like epilepsy.
Can keto be veggie?
The bottom line here is yes, the ketogenic diet is accessible for vegetarians. While you might have to work a little harder to ensure you're getting the right amount of protein, there's no reason why someone who doesn't eat animal proteins should feel like keto is not for them.
"The conventional ketogenic diet can be extremely heavy in meat...not to mention, it can ostracize anyone who would rather follow a more plant-based diet," says Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, functional medicine expert and author of the plant-based keto book Ketotarian. A plant-based keto diet, on the other hand, leverages the benefits of eating a high-fat diet without the often-inflammatory effects of conventional, processed meats. "At their core, plant-based diets can lead to more environmentally friendly eating habits and can have intensive detoxification properties, help fight cancer, and also keep blood sugar under control," says Dr. Cole.
As mentioned above, the healthy fats are the holy grail when it comes to keto. And the types of vegetarian foods that are high-fat are easy to come by. The thing to be aware of when considering a vegetarian keto diet is that it is likely a pretty big shift for the average vegetarian. If you're a vegetarian who tends to replace meat with high-carb alternatives like pasta, bread, and crackers, or higher carb protein sources like beans and lentils, then the transition could be bumpy. But ultimately, the health payoff is worth the potential struggle.
Vegetarian keto-friendly foods.
Though animal protein may seem like a staple in the keto diet, it's important to remember that it's just a small piece of the puzzle. Ultimately what matters most is high-fat food. Some of the vegetarian ketogenic diet rock stars include avocados (Carbs: 12 g, Fat: 21 g), coconut oil (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 14 g), olive oil (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 14 g), and eggs (Carbs: 0.4 g, Fat: 5 g). Vegetarians often have to carefully look out for their protein sources, but plenty of that can be found in eggs, nuts and nut butters, dairy, seeds, and the like.
Here's a short list of vegetarian-friendly foods on the ketogenic diet (with nutrition information from the USDA Food Composition Database, a great resource if you ever need to look up the carb, fat, and protein content of foods not listed below):
We love you, vegans, but you might want to cover your ears for this part. Dairy products are a great keto option for those following a plant-based diet who still incorporate this animal product into their diet. When selecting your dairy du jour, opt for the low-carb options, and avoid anything that adds unnecessary calories through flavoring or sugar. You'll also want to go for the highest quality dairy possible (think: grass-fed fermented yogurt and kefir, cultured cottage cheese and cream cheese, and grass-fed butter and milk). Listed in order of lowest to highest carb content per 1 oz. serving, the best dairy for the keto diet includes:
- butter (Carbs: 0 g, Fat: 22.7 g)
- goat cheese (Carbs: 0.2 g, Fat: 5.9 g)
- cheddar cheese (Carbs: 0.4 g, Fat: 9.3 g)
- cottage cheese (Carbs: 0.9 g, Fat: 1.2 g)
- cream cheese (Carbs: 1.1 g, Fat: 9.6 g)
- half and half (Carbs: 1.2 g, Fat: 3.2 g)
- plain, whole milk yogurt (Carbs: 1.3 g, Fat: 1 g)
- milk (Carbs: 1.5 g, Fat: 1 g)
Vegetables aren't anything to write home about in terms of fat content, but we don't know many vegetarians who can go a day without them. The main thing to keep in mind when selecting vegetables for your ketogenic diet is aiming for low-carb content. You'd be surprised by the number of veggies that pack a secret carby punch. Listed in order of lowest to highest carb content per raw 1 oz. serving, the best vegetables for the keto diet include:
- 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)
One assumption about the ketogenic diet is that you're strictly forbidden to eat any sources of sugar, including fruits. While keto meal plans limit fruit to an extent, there are plenty of low-sugar, and thus low-carb, fruits worth including to ensure a balanced diet. Berries, specifically, have the highest levels of antioxidants of all fruits and can even help stabilize blood sugar levels due to their high fiber content. Listed in order of lowest to highest carb content per 100 grams (typically, around a half-cup), keto-approved fruits include:
- strawberries (Carbs: 7.7 g, Fat: 0.3 g)
- grapefruit (Carbs: 8.4 g, Fat: 0.1 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 (Carbs: 15.2 g, Fat: 33.5 g)
Nuts and seeds
These crunchy, healthy vegetarian staples are a great addition to any salad or as an afternoon snack. The thing to always keep in mind with the keto diet is that you're looking specifically for low-carb, high-fat foods. Certain nuts and seeds meet this criterion. Listed in order of lowest to highest carb content per 1 oz. serving, the best nuts and seeds for the vegetarian keto diet include:
- 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)
Side effects of a vegetarian keto diet.
For a vegetarian who is looking to clean up their eating and cut out unhealthy, processed carbs, a keto diet is a great option. But it's not the only option. If you're sure you want to take the plant-based keto plunge, it's important to make a commitment to eating a wide variety of approved foods to make sure you don't experience any nutritional shortfalls.
Vegetarians are generally at risk of a B12 vitamin deficiency since this nutrient is most commonly found in meat. And because vegetarian keto is especially restrictive, it's important to make sure you're supplementing with the appropriate nutrients you think you may be lacking, or at the very least taking a high-quality multivitamin. Consider working with a registered dietitian who can help you figure out how to formulate your vegetarian keto diet to avoid nutrient deficiencies as well as suggest supplements. In addition to vitamin B12, some common supplement recommendations for vegetarians and vegans in general include vitamin D, omega-3s, and vitamin K2.
Sample vegetarian keto meal plan.
Use this three-day meal plan as a baseline that you can build upon. Once you have a good grasp on what is (and isn't) considered an appropriate vegetarian ketogenic food, start experimenting with your own vegetarian keto meal plan.
Breakfast: Zucchini egg nests with sliced avocado
Snack: Macadamia nuts
Lunch: Cobb salad with mixed greens, hard-boiled egg, tomato, cucumber, cheese, and oil and vinegar dressing
Dinner: Cauliflower-crust pizza with tomato sauce, mushrooms, peppers, basil, and other keto-friendly toppings
Breakfast: Frittata "pizza" with spinach, olives, and cheese
Snack: Cottage cheese or plain yogurt with berries and walnuts
Lunch: Spaghetti squash with spinach, artichoke, and cheese
Dinner: Grilled cauliflower steak
Breakfast: Green smoothie with full-fat coconut milk, greens, blueberries, avocado, and chia seeds
Snack: Sunflower seeds
Lunch: Cauliflower fried rice with egg, carrots, celery, peas, and onions
Dinner: Pesto zoodles with sliced cherry tomatoes
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