The ketogenic diet is seemingly the latest and greatest way to lose weight. It’s high-fat and low-carb with a moderate amount of protein.
At first glance, “vegan” and “keto” are complete opposites. A vegan diet is typically higher in carbs while a carnivorous keto diet has more protein than needed.
But veganism and keto have a lot in common, too. They both have a large following, yet they receive a fair share of criticism from experts and enthusiasts.
By nature, both the vegan and keto diets are more restrictive than the Standard American Diet. Combine the two, and you have a very specific (and probably short) grocery list to adhere to.
This leads us to the question: Is it even possible to follow a vegan ketogenic diet? If you’re willing to give up carbs, here’s how to do the vegan keto diet.
What is the Keto Diet?
Taking out labels like “vegan” and “non-vegan,” let’s set the ground rules of how the keto diet works. There’s a scientific aspect of the keto diet that’s missing in other diets like Paleo, Atkins, Whole 30, etc.
Basically, by following the diet, your body will go into a state of ketosis. (Now you see where the keto diet gets its name.) This is when the body converts fat into ketones, a type of acid, which muscles and tissues can then use as fuel.
Long story short: Ketosis is when your body burns fat for energy. Normally our body burns glucose or carbs for energy, so this is a big deal if you have some extra fat you’d like to lose.
Today, the keto diet has gone viral for its weight loss benefits. However, it’s been historically used to treat patients with epilepsy and other health conditions.
What people eat on the keto diet
Science aside, the keto meal plan is very specific.
The keto diet usually stipulates that followers eat a maximum of 20 grams of net carbs per day. Depending on your body and weight loss goals, your specific macronutrient breakdown may vary. Keto experts recommend using a keto calculator to determine your macros.
Here’s an example macronutrient breakdown on the keto diet:
- 70-80% fat
- 20-25% protein
- 5-10% carbs
With these strict macros, most people go straight for animal products—they’re virtually free of carbs, yet high in fat and protein. This is why the keto diet is associated with bacon, eggs, butter, cheese, salmon, beef, and so on.
Animal products make up the majority of foods eaten on the keto diet, but they aren’t the only compliant foods. Keto followers also eat avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and various oils. Aside from mostly fat and protein, you can have non-starchy vegetables, select fruits, and condiments in moderation.
What experts say about the keto diet
Many experts and physicians have a lot of concerns about the keto diet.
Garth Davis, M.D. is especially vocal about the dangers of low-carb, high-fat diets. He recently cited a meticulously researched study on the keto diet wherein the patients experienced significant increases in cholesterol, inflammation, insulin resistance and other markers.
Contrary to what keto enthusiasts claim, he also makes some great points about animal products contributing to weight gain. In an excerpt from his book “Proteinaholic,” Dr. Garth Davis explains why animal protein actually causes weight gain instead of weight loss: Meat is high in calories yet low in fiber, which is a recipe for weight gain. This may be why Dr. Garth Davis believes any weight lost on the keto diet will be gained back.
It seems that many plant-based physicians are concerned about the increased risk of heart disease on the keto diet. Dr. Michael Gregor points out that low-carb diets impair artery function and coronary blood flow, which contributes to heart disease.
There’s also concern that the ketogenic diet is simply unsafe. Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. has compiled an entire list of adverse reactions to the keto diet. (Spoiler: There have been some deaths.)
Can Vegans do the Keto Diet?
The short answer is…yes, it’s possible. But it’s not easy.
Since whole, plant foods are typically higher in carbs, you can see how the vegan keto diet could be challenging. In general, vegans eat a lot of carbs. The USDA Guidelines recommend that adults get around 45-65% of their daily calories from carbs. Obviously, this figure goes way down on a keto diet, whether it’s vegan or not.
On a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet, you may eat as many legumes, grains, fruits, veggies, starches, etc. as your heart desires. A big portion of the healthy foods you would normally consume on a WFPB diet would be eliminated on vegan keto. Say goodbye to beans and rice, and say hello to coconut oil and avocado.
Vegan keto is challenging, but it’s possible. Here’s what your grocery list may look like on a vegan keto diet.
Vegan keto diet food list
- Oils: Olive oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed oil
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts
- Seeds: Chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Nut and seed butter: Almond butter, peanut butter, cashew butter, coconut butter, sunflower seed butter, and tahini
- Non-starchy vegetables: Leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms, zucchini, and more
- Vegan dairy alternatives: coconut milk, coconut cream, vegan butter, vegan cheese, vegan cream cheese, and unsweetened dairy-free yogurt
- Vegan meat alternatives: tofu, tempeh, and the Beyond Burger
- Select fruits: Avocado, berries, tomatoes, lemons, limes, and coconut
- Condiments: Hot sauce, soy sauce, mustard, olives, pickles, vinegar, herbs, and spices
- Vegan protein powders: Hemp, pea, and soy
What experts say
There’s a world of difference between the traditional keto diet and the vegan keto diet.
In an interview with Plant Based News, Joel Kahn, M.D. states, “You don’t need to fear plant protein like you should be fearing animal protein. The people following the popular ketogenic diet [high in animal products] have this high-fat and high-protein diet that may be your worst choice possible for your risk of heart disease and cancer.”
Unlike his warnings against a meat-based keto diet, Dr. Joel Kahn tolerates the vegan keto diet. If people are interested in vegan keto, he encourages them to eat lots of leafy greens, dark berries and whole foods plant-based sources of fats. He also recommends keeping your fat macros around 50-60%, which is slightly lower than the 70-80% associated with the keto diet.
There’s even medical literature on low-carb, plant-based diets. Eco-Atkins is a prime example. In a 6-month study, participants on the Eco-Atkins diet (low-carb vegan) experienced weight loss and improved heart disease risk factors.
Vegan keto isn’t in the clear, though. More on its drawbacks to come.
Vegan Keto Diet vs. Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
Generally, a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet (WFPB) diet gets a lot of support from health professionals. There’s a lot of criticism, of course, but there’s also a lot of scientific evidence that supports a healthy vegan diet.
WFPB is a sustainable diet that’s high in fiber, plant proteins, and micronutrients. There’s also a balanced amount of fat, protein, and carbs.
Unlike vegan keto, you can enjoy grains, legumes, starches, and all fruits on a plant-based diet. On a WFPB diet, you may be less likely to acquire nutritional deficiencies. For example, grains and legumes are high minerals like iron while fruit is high in vitamins like A, C, and E.
Vegans are often told to plan out their diet and track their nutrients, but if you eat a variety of whole foods, you likely have most of your nutrients covered without trying.
Drawbacks of the vegan keto diet
Vegan keto isn’t all pros. Yes, you get to indulge in fatty foods and drop some lbs, but there are some caveats.
Where the vegan keto diet pales in comparison to a WFPB diet is that it’s not sustainable. The human body depends on carbohydrates for energy. Without them, you risk losing lean muscle as well as fat. (You may also become hangry if you’re under-carbed.)
You may have noticed that many doctors encouraging a WFPB diet emphasize the importance of whole carbohydrates and fiber. While vegan keto is healthier for your heart than non-vegan keto, it’s still low in energy-rich carbs that are full of nutrients and fiber.
While vegan keto is arguably healthier than non-vegan keto (less cholesterol, higher fiber, and no health risks associated with animal protein), it’s still not a balanced diet. You run the risk of missing out on essential micronutrients. Many vegans already know to take their vitamin B12, but people doing vegan keto may require even more supplements.
Mic the Vegan, a popular science-backed vegan YouTuber, recently published a video titled, “Vegan Keto: 4 Pros and Cons.” One of his major takeaways is that vegan keto may still have some of the drawbacks of non-vegan keto. He also critiques the vegan keto’s reliance on processed oils, which he has dubbed “the vegan killer.”
Vegan keto meal plan with recipes
So, what does a day on the vegan keto diet look like? Let’s take a look at an entire week complete with vegan keto recipes.
- Breakfast: Vegan tofu scramble
- Lunch: Low carb curry noodle bowl
- Dinner: Walnut and hemp seed lettuce wraps
- Breakfast: Vegan keto bagel thins
- Lunch: Zucchini noodles with avocado sauce
- Dinner: Keto superfood soup
It’s generally unrealistic to make three meals every day, but this should give you an idea of what your menu may look like on vegan keto.
Can vegans do keto? It’s not impossible, but it’s not the most enjoyable diet either. I’m definitely not a fan of the keto diet both in terms of nutrition as well as the limitations on what to eat.
If you’re interested in doing the vegan keto diet for health or weight loss reasons, approach it like you would any other vegan diet: Simply swap out non-vegan foods for vegan foods.
The vegan numbers are rising, so it’s not surprising that there’s a decent amount of vegan keto recipes out there.
Loading up on peanut butter and Beyond burgers may seem fun at first, but your body will miss its carbs sooner or later.