A RD Weighs in on a Keto-Vegan Diet

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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A RD Weighs in on a Keto-Vegan Diet

With so many restrictions on each diet, advising on how to combine a keto and vegan diet can get tricky. First let’s make sure we have a full understanding of the two.

THE KETO DIET

On the surface, the keto diet reads like a meat-lovers dream — one that’s extremely low in carbohydrates, heavily weighted in fats and moderate in protein. Exactly how low in carbs? No more than 50 grams a day; ideally less, and closer to about 20 grams of net carbs (total carbohydrate minus total fiber) per day.

From a full profile perspective, a “typical” keto diet is about 70% of calories from fat, less than 20% from protein and less than 10% from carbohydrates. That’s a vast difference from the USDA’s recommendation that 45–65% of calories come from carbohydrates.

But here’s what makes the keto diet a little different: It goes beyond most other extreme elimination diets, in that the mechanism behind the “success” of it is metabolically driven. The point is to drive your body into a state of ketosis, where the liver is forced to produce ketones for energy; essentially putting the entire body into starvation mode.

Over time, extremely low-carb diets put our body into a glucose deficit. In the absence of available glucose — the fuel our bodies normally use for energy — we use stored fats as our main source of fuel, rather than carbohydrates.

It may sound like a lot, but 50 grams or less per day adds up very quickly. Here’s what a few of our favorite carb-filled sources look like, which nearly translates into a full allotment of daily carbohydrate allowances on the keto diet:

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes = 42g net carbs
  • 1 cup cooked lentils = 42g net carbs
  • 2 (1.5 ounce) slices whole-wheat bread = 32g net carbs
  • 1 medium banana = 24g net carbs
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup 13g net carbs

What’s missing from the keto diet: most fruits, starchy vegetables (like potatoes and other root vegetables), whole grains, legumes, refined grains and sugar.

THE VEGAN DIET

The vegan diet is a plant-based, vegetarian diet that excludes all animal-derived products and byproducts including meat, dairy, eggs and even honey. It’s aim is typically focused on sustainability and avoiding the use-of and harm-to any living beings. Vegan diets are high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, coconut-based products, fruits and vegetables of all character — both starchy and non-starchy.

What’s missing from the vegan diet: meat, seafood, eggs, dairy and all animal-derived products and byproducts (including honey and gelatin).

WHEN KETO AND VEGAN DIETS MIX

So what does a plant-based version of the keto diet look like?

Lots of nuts and seeds (including nut and seed oils, butters and nut-based milk and milk-products), some fruit (avocados, berries, tomatoes), greens, coconut-based products (oil and milk-products) and loads of non-starchy vegetables.

There are a lot of missing food groups when the two are combined. Here, a breakdown:

Fats are the most important category in the keto diet, so a vegan version would be centered on plant-based fats, including olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and other nut or seed-based oils and butters. Note: It’s important to be mindful and limit the amount of coconut-based products, which are high in saturated fat.

This is already a tricky category of the keto diet, as too much protein (more than 20% of calories) may take you out of ketosis. Adding a vegan spin makes options limited, and many of those options may be highly processed and contain carbohydrates.

  • Soy-based products: Tofu, seitan and tempeh are all plant-based, protein-rich options. Keep in mind, these soy-based products are highly processed. It’s important to try and work in more proteins from whole foods. (Note: Tempeh is higher in carbohydrates than most protein sources, but it’s also high in fiber, which lowers its net carbohydrate count).
  • Certain legumes: The keto diet is limited in carbohydrates, so stick with those higher in protein and fiber with a lower net carb count.
    • Edamame is a top choice, with 3.5g protein, 4g fat and 3.5g net carbs per 1/2 cup.
    • Chickpeas are higher in carbohydrates but great in limited amounts, with 5.5g protein, 2g fat and 13g net carbs per 1/2 cup canned or cooked chickpeas.
    • Peanuts (remember, these are legumes, not nuts!) are another great option with 10g protein, 19g fat and 3g net carbs per 1/4 cup.
  • Nuts, seeds and nut butters: These high-fat sources also have lots of calories along with protein.
    • Chia seeds have 5g protein per ounce
    • Almond butter has 3.5g protein per tablespoon
  • Alternative milk and milk products: Check the label. Most soy and pea milk are vegan and keto-friendly, but many varieties — like some almond and cashew milks — have little to no protein. Also watch for added sugars in these products.

The key is to keep carbs lower than 50 grams total and 20 net grams of carbohydrates per day to stay in ketosis. Fiber plays a very important role, as net carbs are used to calculate daily totals.

A net carbohydrate = total carbohydrates – total fiber.

  • Vegetables: Load up on non-starchy vegetables (those that grow above ground) and greens. These are key players in the vegan-version of the keto diet. Check out our detailed guide of what vegetables are OK to eat on the keto diet. Gut health plays a major role in all diets, too, so it’s important to work in plenty of fermented veggies like kimchi, sauerkraut and miso (all are low in carbohydrates).
  • Fruits: Avocados may likely become your biggest go-to in this category. Loaded with heart-healthy fats (21g fat) and low in sugar (only 2 net carbs), avocados will be a staple. Other good lower-in-carb options include berries, tomatoes and watermelon. Check out our detailed guide of what fruits are OK to eat on the keto diet.
  • Grains: Grains are low in fat and high in carbohydrates, making them a less-than-ideal participant in a vegan-keto diet. Even power grains like quinoa have a difficult time finding a place here due to their carbohydrate profile.

Vegan-based diets have the tendency to fall short on certain key nutrients including vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and protein. Adding a layer of keto to that makes it even more difficult as whole grains, legumes (both good sources of iron, protein and zinc), and even breakfast cereal (fortified with vitamin B12) plays an important role in many vegan diets. It’s important to supplement when necessary and make sure you are getting a wide variety of greens and keto-friendly vegetables at every meal.

MyFitnessPal has a few recipes that meet both criteria:

There are several versions of keto, some “dirty” that include more butter, bacon and cheese, while others, like the veganized-version (based on avocados, nuts, seeds and other plant-based foods for fat) are more “clean” in nature. Better, but still not exactly the best choice for long-term success.

Studies of a keto-meets-vegan diet are few and far between, though many studies reveal obtaining your protein and fat from plant-based sources is healthier. For the most part, a keto-meets-vegan diet is doable, but it isn’t suggested over long periods of time.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Going on a veganized-keto diet isn’t ideal. There are many challenges and barriers to optimal health when cutting out so many healthy food categories like starchy vegetables, whole grains, seafood, legumes and dairy. Long-term success is limited and likely not sustainable. If this is the diet you are considering, it is extremely important to make sure it’s balanced, short-term and includes an array of nutrients that meet an optimal profile for health and fitness. When in doubt, seek out a doctor or registered dietitian.

Stick to your low-carb goals by tracking total net carbs in each food, meal and day in the MyFitnessPal app.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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