Two very specific diets, one body: can it be done? Short answer, yes, you can maintain a vegan keto diet. Whether you’re vegan going keto, a keto dieter going vegan, or neither and going for both in a most ambitious fashion, this guide will walk you through the Venn diagram of how keto and vegan diets differ on their own, but also where they can come together.
Let’s start with the basic tenets of each of these diets.
The keto or ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that seeks to reduce carbs and replace them with healthy fats for the sake of putting the body into a state of ketosis. That is when the body uses ketone molecules instead of glucose for daily energy. The ketone bodies will break down the fats being eaten, and then quickly burn up your fat stores to replace the energy source its being denied (carbs and sugars). It’s a safe way to drop weight quickly.
Veganism involves an ethical choice of abstaining from using animal products, in diet but often in other aspects of life as well (no leather or wool clothing for example). While vegetarians do not eat meat, they might still consume eggs (ovo-vegetarians) or milk (lacto-vegtarians) or both (ovo-lacto), and sometimes fish meat only (pescatarians). Vegans consume no animal products, not eggs, nor honey from bees, nor cow’s milk-derived dairy products of any kind.
Vegan diets tend to rely on carbohydrates to get most of the day’s calories, while the keto diet restricts carb and protein intake. Vegan dieters sometimes struggle to get enough protein from plant sources, and while they’re not exactly opposed, combining these two diets together can come with unique challenges that people following only one might not face. That being said, in some ways they can complement each other. Here are some of the pros and cons that will be valuable to know if you’re pursuing this dual-track dieting program.
A danger in keeping a vegan diet is that a heavy reliance on carbohydrates means a higher potential for issues related to blood sugar spikes. While a plant-based diet shows a strong correlation with reduced risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, without careful control of what type of carbohydrates are being eaten, it’s a potential flaw in the vegan diet. Adding keto to veganism reduces carb intake drastically, leaving only plant-based protein and healthy fats as real options, serving as a natural check to excessive carb consumption.
In the ketogenic diet, only 15-30% of your calories should come from protein. Add veganism to that, and you’ve taken out all the animal sources of protein, including eggs.
Vegan dieters sometimes struggle to get enough protein from plant-based sources, but with a calorie cap on that as well, it will be difficult to find the amount of protein needed without exceeding the calorie limit.
A recommendation here is to eat hemp seeds and nutritional yeast, which has 3 grams of protein per tablespoon, and can be sprinkled on top of or included in other meals throughout the day (keeping in mind that it tastes a bit like cheese).
Protein consumption is very important to monitor, because too much will become glucose, but not enough protein may result in the breakdown of muscle, a sort of self-cannibalizing of your muscle tissues that you’ll definitely want to avoid.
The keto diet is all about burning fat from the body in a safe, sustainable way, and it works. It also comes with the added benefit of cutting down inflammation in the digestive system caused by gluten and sugar intake, balancing hormones, and resetting your hunger cues (another way it helps make weight loss easier).
Veganism, too, lowers the risk of obesity due to the healthier dietary choices being made, but combined, you can not only lose weight fast but keep it off once it’s gone without being deprived of needed vitamins and nutrients.
The amount of high-fat plant-based foods is low, more limited than a Paleo diet (which means to remove all processed foods, dairy products, and grains—any foods that arrived after and because of farming practices). Plants tend to store sugar whereas animals are more inclined to store fat. Even beans are quite starchy, so when looking for plant-based foods, with enough fat and protein, that are also low in carbs? It’s a very short list. Maybe it’s easier to meal prep if you only have a dozen allowable ingredients, but the lack of variety might become disheartening very quickly.
Many health benefits are associated with keto and vegan diets separately (as of yet there are no specific studies that have been done on the combination of the two).
Vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of certain cancers and heart disease, as well as a 75% lower risk of high blood pressure and a 78% reduction of risk for type 2 diabetes. Vegans tend to carry less excess weight on their bodies, as do those following successful ketogenic diets (that being the whole point of keto).
Research has shown that a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet is even beneficial to obese children: those participants in the study who followed the keto diet lost more weight/fat than those children following a generally low-calorie diet. The keto diet also raised their levels of adiponectin, a protein affecting fat metabolism and blood sugar regulation that’s also associated with lower risk of obesity-related diseases. These results lead one to believe that a combo keto/vegan diet would bring about positive health benefits as well.
Vegans can achieve ketosis with high-fat, plant-based items like avocados, olives, coconut or MCT oil (a concentrate), and seeds and nuts (chia seeds, macadamia nuts). Non-starchy vegetables like mushrooms, cauliflower, zucchini, or the dark leafy green and vitamin-rich kale also fit the bill. Some berries and all soy products help bridge the space between these two diets, with avocado especially being the star: just one fair-sized avocado can provide 40% of your daily intake of fiber, and it’s one of the healthiest fats around.
So how do these ingredients make up a day’s meals? Let’s run through one day in the dietary life of the keto vegan and discuss recipe options.
A coffee (or dandelion “coffee” if you don’t want any caffeine intake; dandelion coffee is a caffeine-free herbal tea that tastes quite similar to coffee) with some MCT oil dropped in is a great way to start the day, especially if you do any intermittent fasting. For something to eat, maybe some chia seed pudding with coconut milk and a few berries on top (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and/or blackberries can be had in moderation). Choose blueberries for the added antioxidant health benefits, and know that blueberries are also good for healing the gut lining.
Or if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, a tofu scramble: a block of tofu, some spinach, cherry tomatoes, a tablespoon of olive oil, and some spices (including turmeric for color) like onion powder and pink salt for taste (and water retention). Or check out this recipe for vegan keto protein pancakes!
For lunch, enjoy a salad of baby spinach leaves, avocado, broccoli, and mushrooms, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and some nutritional yeast. Use macadamia nut oil or MCT oil mixed with a preferred flavor to dress the salad, and if you’re trying to pack in as much as possible, a little pink salt won’t hurt either (and will add taste).
If you have time to meal-prep at the start of the week, you could make a zucchini lasagna with vegan Parmesan, nutritional yeast, a cheese-like spread of finely chopped nuts mixed into a paste with olive oil, basil, and lemon juice, plus some organic tomato basil sauce to complete the dish. Strips of long-sliced zucchini layered down with the other ingredients will give you a delicious and fast lunch for the rest of the week.
A keto smoothie will do: peanut butter or almond butter, avocado, some coconut or MCT oil, ground flaxseed and/or chia seeds, and the option of cacao powder, almond milk, or a little vegan ketogenic protein powder if you have room for it before dinner.
Or if you don’t want to drink your snack but do need your carb for the day: avocado toast made with Ezekiel bread, or a bowl of edamame to curb any cravings before dinner.
Most likely your biggest meal of the day, zucchini noodles (or zoodles if you please), tempeh for protein, and perhaps an avocado pesto topping. For an alternative noodle-like dish, spaghetti squash with garlic butter is another example of a vegan keto meal.
Or you could make a tofu and cauliflower rice stir fry with a peanut glaze and bok choy for balance. If dinner is your biggest meal, make it count with flavor and density.
Round out your fat intake for the day with seemingly decadent fat bombs or any number of delicious keto desserts like no-bake chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies. Just watch that the ingredients don’t contain egg, cream cheese, or ice cream, but know there are still tons of recipes fit for the keto vegan’s sweet tooth.
While traditionally a ketogenic diet relies heavily on animal-based protein, a vegan keto diet is not only doable, it brings with it some particular advantages. There are potential cancer-fighting effects from this diet, and signs that it boosts mental acuity, improves blood sugar regulation, supports ideal weight, and lowers inflammation. From a metabolic standpoint, ketones are actually much more efficient sources of energy than sugar, which means less inflammation because there’s less oxidative stress.
Be aware of the vitamins and nutrients that are at risk of being low for a vegan diet: vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, potassium, and magnesium. Eat fortified foods, supplement for any vitamins or minerals you find lacking or difficult to consume regularly, and be cognizant of your body’s warnings—sometimes fatigue is because you’re tired, sometimes it’s because your body needs more than it’s getting from your diet. Basically: know thyself, trust thyself, and feed thyself well.