It’s not often that you hear someone say, “I’m on a vegan ketogenic diet!” Low carb diets are often scorned in the high carb low fat vegan community – after all, low carbers only eat meat, and carbs make the world turn round. So, a low carb vegan diet would seem impossible.
However, this isn’t the case at all! I was first introduced to the low carb world while vegan, and actually found it really easy to adapt my current diet to be low carb. Hopefully the following info helps you to do the same.
Determine Your Daily Carbs on a Vegan Ketogenic Diet
While conventional keto rules say to start at 20g of net carbs a day, vegan ketoers may find that 30g of net carbs is a little closer to an achievable goal. It really boils down to this – plant foods tend to all have a little carbohydrate in them, whereas animal products do not.
Yes, you can just pour oil into your mouth all day, every day. But…that’s really, really boring. It’s also not sustainable for most people in the long term. So, increasing the target number of carbs just a little bit can be pretty beneficial to your taste buds, and your sanity. I’ve worked with clients who can maintain ketosis while eating up to 50g of net carbs some days and a daily average of 30-40g. So, there’s certainly wiggle room.
Of course, it’s still possible to eat 20g of net carbohydrates per day (even without drinking oil), so if you really want to limit carbohydrates, you have an option there.
Don’t Count Too Much in the Beginning
This is counterintuitive, as carb counting seems integral to the whole process. But counting is really not necessary, especially when you’re first starting out and getting the hang of things. You’ll want to make sure you’re used to eating a good variety of foods, and that this is a sustainable and satisfying way of eating for you. So many people start a keto diet by jumping in head first, end up feeling terrible and craving all their favorite foods, and quitting before any real results can happen.
Instead, be kind and give yourself some time to adjust to a totally new way of eating. Focus on eating low carb foods and on making keto-friendly recipes, and see how you like everything. You could spend the first few days eating until you’re satisfied without counting carbs or calories too closely. Then, once you’ve settled into a meal rhythm, start counting (or not, if being fancy-free is working!).
Of course, if you are the type of person who needs more rigidity and structure, then this system won’t work quite as well for you. Eating plant-based keto is about listening to your body, and knowing what’s right for you. If you need lots of structure and know that you want to stick to a certain amount of carbs and calories per day, then careful tracking or use of a meal plan may benefit you more greatly than a looser way of doing things. Just do what feels right for you. 🙂
Oils and Fats
This is a vegan keto freebie. All oils are low in carbs and super fatty. You’ll definitely want to have a good quality bottle of olive oil on hand, and a jar of good quality coconut oil. Why the emphasis on quality? Lesser quality oils will have likely gone rancid on store shelves and can be damaging to your body. Be sure to purchase olive oil in a dark glass bottle or even a metal container. Coconut oil is more stable, but both should be extra virgin and cold pressed for the highest quality, and most nutrients.
And yes, oils contain vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals when they’re not processed to high heaven.
To go right to the source, and get more nutritional value, eating foods like coconut, avocado and olives are also great!
Get to Know Nuts & Seeds
If you’ve decided to embark on a vegan ketogenic diet, you’ll really want to familiarize yourself with nuts. Containing both fat and protein, nuts are filling and delicious. Plus, nuts are lower in carbs than many other plant-based foods.
Net carbs in nuts & seeds (g/oz)
- Flax seeds: .5g
- Pecans: 1.1g
- Brazil nuts: 1.3g
- Macadamia nuts: 1.5g
- Chia seeds: 1.7g
- Walnuts: 1.9g
- Coconut (dried): 2g
- Pumpkin seeds: 2.2g
- Hazelnuts: 2.3g
- Sesame seeds: 2.6g
- Almonds: 2.9g
- Sunflower seeds: 3.7g
- Peanuts: 3.8g
- Pistachios: 5.8g 🙁
- Cashews: 8.5g 🙁
And yes, I know peanuts are technically a legume, but they work here. Pistachios and cashews are pretty high in carbs for nuts, but I still included them because it’s good to know. Also, they’re both so tasty… Odds are, you’re going to want them sometime.
Low Carb Veggies – Get Your Greens!
While low carb dieters often go a bit lighter on the veggies, for fear of going over too much on carbs, there’s really no need! Greens are actually incredibly low in carbs, and their nutrients actually become more bioavailable when cooked, and consumed with fat. So, you basically have to sauté those collard greens in garlic and olive oil. For science.
Most greens will be between .2-.5g/cup when raw, so about 2-4g net carbs per cup when cooked. Not bad at all! Feel free to check out a more complete list of low carb veggies (and reasons to eat veggies), but here is a small sampling to get you started:
Carbs of Various Greens (grams of net carbs per cup):
- Mustard greens: .2g
- Raw Spinach: .2g
- Bok Choi: .4g
- Endive: .4g
- Lettuce: .4g
- Broccoli florets: 1.6g
- Cauliflower: 1.8g
- Cucumber: 2g
- Green cabbage: 2.2g
Can You Eat Fruit on Keto?
Of course you can! I mean, technically, you can eat anything that isn’t an animal product on a vegan ketogenic diet, but I know that’s not what you’re asking! Basically, fruits are pretty sugary, so you’ll want to steer clear of most and eat mainly berries. This is great anyway, as berries tend to be more nutrient dense. So, win-win.
There is plenty more information about eating fruit on keto, but hopefully, this short list provides a good start.
Carb Count of Selected Fruits and Berries (grams net carbs per 1/4 cup):
- Raspberries: 1.5g
- Strawberries: 1.8g
- Blackberries: 2.1g
- Watermelon: 2.6g
- Pineapple: 3.8g
- Blueberries: 4.1g
- Cherries: 4.2g
Low Carb Protein Sources for a Vegan Ketogenic Diet
“But, where do you get your pro–” I’m going to stop you right there. If you’ve been vegetarian or vegan for any reasonable amount of time, you’ve probably realized that there’s protein in basically everything. So, getting enough protein on a vegan ketogenic diet isn’t really a big deal.
If you’re looking to consume a little bit more protein than the average vegan keto bear, there are plenty of low carb vegan protein powders on the market (I’m obsessed with Vega, and talk in more detail about other low carb plant-based protein powders here. You can also find a variety of low carb meat substitutes at most grocery stores that are very keto-friendly, and contain a hearty amount of protein.
For now though, we’ll talk about whole food low carb plant sources of some extra protein. Aside from nuts and seeds (which tend to have between 2-7g per serving), your choices are a little more limited than with other food categories. Protein tends to come packaged with carbs in nature. However, the protein you get from vegetables throughout the day does actually amount to something! Plus, adding nutritional yeast to your meals can certainly give an added protein boost. Depending on the brand, nutritional yeast contains around 3g of protein per tablespoon and is very low carb.
Below, I’ve listed the protein and carb counts for the most protein-dense whole foods.
Low Carb Plant-Based Protein Sources (g protein | g net carbs | serving size):
- Hemp Seeds (hulled) | 10g | 0g | 3 tbsp)
- Tofu: 10g | 1.9g | 1/2 cup cubes
- Soybeans (mature, yellow): 14g | 3.5g | 1/2 cup
- Soybeans (edamame, green): 11g | 6g | 1/2 cup
- Peas: 5g | 9g | 2/3 cup
- Soybeans (dry roasted): 17g | 10.5g | 1/2 cup
- Spinach (frozen): 4g | 1g | 1 cup
- Almonds | 6g | 2.5g | 1/4 cup
- Sunflower Seeds | 7.3g | 4g | 1/4 cup
- Pumpkin Seeds | 8.8g | 2.3g | 1/4 cup
- Peanut Butter | 6g | 4g | 2 tbsp
- Lupins (lupini beans) | 26g | 11.4g | 1 cup
Pretty much all greens and mushrooms contain large proportions of protein and are relatively low in carbs. So, this is another great place to look for some extra protein on a vegan ketogenic diet.
Low Carb Vegan Desserts
This is the site for you! Basically, take a look at the low carb vegan recipe archives here, to find keto-friendly plant-based dessert recipes without eggs, dairy, honey or any other animal products. Win!
How you want to incorporate desserts is really up to you. Some people prefer to forego any sort of “sweet” (keto or not) for the first month or so, while they work on eliminating sugar cravings. Others (like me) need that crutch to bridge the gap between higher carb eating and low carb.
When I first started eating a plant-based keto diet a few years ago, I would make this easy keto fudge at pretty much every opportunity, because I was so used to eating a ton of sugar throughout the day that I really needed to have something sweet tasting to with pretty much every meal. Over time, that’s evolved, and now I probably make one dessert recipe per week (instead of per day!).
Another easy way to enjoy dessert on keto is to enjoy some berries topped with coconut cream after dinner. It’s pretty minimal in carbs (raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries are all pretty low carb), and will certainly satisfy that sweet craving. You’ll be surprised at how sweet berries and plain coconut cream will taste after you’ve been in ketosis for a while. In fact, you’ll be surprised at how sweet a lot of foods begin to taste once you are no longer consuming loads of sugar.
My final way of sneaking those dessert-like foods into my day is fat bombs. Fat bombs are basically super low in carbs and protein, but high in fat. They’re typically made with coconut oil and nut butter and some other flavoring, and sweetened with stevia. I like keeping a batch of fat bombs in my freezer all the time so I can grab one if I’m feeling the need for something sweet, but don’t necessarily want to bake anything. My favorite fat bomb recipes are listed here.
The one thing I would say in caution of eating a lot of keto desserts is that they’re often very calorically dense, and easy to overeat. While you may stay within your carb limits, you could end up going way over on calories. While this is totally fine every once in a while, making it a daily habit could derail any weight loss progress you’ve made so far. To combat this, I like to make a batch of something and then store it in the freezer so that I have to thaw whatever it is before I eat it. This helps me portion things better and doesn’t leave anything up to willpower. After all, you really only have so much willpower to give, and by the end of the day when you want that brownie, it’s probably been tested quite a bit!
Do I Need to Follow A Low Carb Vegan Meal Plan?
This is really up to you! Many people starting out on a plant-based keto diet don’t want to have to think about tracking macros, or finding recipes or thinking about what foods they can and cannot have. If this sounds like you, then you would definitely want to look into finding a vegan keto diet plan that works for you.
I have several vegan keto diet plans available that can help you figure out just what to eat to obtain necessary nutrients (they’re actually the only plans out there that do this!), and take the guess-work out of starting a low carb vegan diet.
Of course, you can succeed without following a meal plan, especially if you are going for more of a “lazy keto” approach.
Exercise on a Vegan Ketogenic Diet
One question that pops up in my inbox pretty frequently is “can I exercise on a vegan ketogenic diet?” With this, people usually want to know if they should increase their carbs or protein, or how I recommend they start an exercise program while on vegan keto. We’ll start with the main point: yes, you can exercise on a vegan ketogenic diet, assuming you have no health issues that would prevent this (talk to your doctor if you think this is you!).
Just like with regular keto, there are likely going to be some differences in the way you train on a plant-based keto diet, and there are different ways to deal with the changes. You may notice at first (especially in the first two weeks of keto) that you just aren’t able to train as well. This is normal and is actually pretty common among athletes. While long-term, a ketogenic diet can actually improve athletic performance for endurance sports, there does seem to be a two-week adjustment period where you won’t feel particularly great.
I can tell you from experience that in my first few weeks of a veggie keto diet, I was really not able to work out at all. I just found myself getting too tired and ultimately just decided to forego exercise during the adjustment period for this reason. I actually ended up only doing light exercise (basically, just walking) for the first two months or so, which is when I lost all the weight I had to lose. Later, I slowly started incorporating more and more physical activity to my routine, and now I’m able to handle quite a bit of exercise on a very low carb diet.
After the initial two weeks of either not working out, or going easier on your workouts (you could also try to push through and see if you can get past that sluggish feeling, you should be well-adapted and able to return to normal exercise.
During this adaptation phase, I would recommend either eating at maintenance while you are exercising, or if you would prefer to eat at a deficit, exercise more cautiously. While you may be chomping at the bit to jump start fat loss, you won’t be setting yourself up for success if you are both at a caloric deficit and also trying to become fat adapted.
Some lighter exercises I would recommend for the first few weeks while you are becoming fat-adapted on low carb diet include yoga, light hiking, walks and cycling on relatively flat surfaces. It can be incredibly frustrating trying to maintain a level of performance while completely altering your diet and it is in your best interest to try and give yourself as much of a leg up as possible during this period.
No matter what kind of exercise you are doing, make sure to increase water consumption accordingly so that you are not dehydrated! You will also want to increase mineral and electrolyte consumption. Sleep is another important aspect to making sure you are able to perform at your best, so don’t skip out on a good night’s worth, especially before days where you hit the gym!
How Do I Perform My Best As a Low Carb Vegan Keto Athlete?
Of course, as everyone is different, you may not feel your best even after the initial two weeks. Should your athletic performance still be subpar after you have become fat-adapted, you may want to consider either increasing your daily amount of carbohydrates or incorporating a refeed day. Women especially may find that they need to take one of these two steps to increase their athletic performance.
Try adding in berries to a protein shake on days when you know you are going to work out, to see if an increase of carbs can help better your athletic performance. I would recommend starting with5-10 additional grams of carbohydrates each day and test that out for a few days in a row before increasing the amount again. So, for example, you may want to add a 1/2 cup of blueberries (about 8g net carbs) to your smoothie on workout days for 3 days in a row. If you don’t see improvement or only see a slight improvement after three days, then try adding in additional carbs for another three days. Keep this up until you find a point where you are satisfied.
You can also incorporate carb refeed days. In the PubMed article I mentioned previously, athletes who incorporated a higher-carb “refeed day” every 5-6 days noticed a complete replenishment of glycogen stores. For this refeed day, I would caution against going super crazy and just eat cookies, pastries, pasta, and pizza. This can really wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels and really doesn’t provide any beneficial nutrients. Instead, focus on whole foods like sweet potatoes, grains, fruit, and beans to increase your carb counts.
Whenever I have a refeed day, I try to keep the carbs between 100-150g net. While this is actually still considered “low carb” by many, I find it’s as high as I can go without feeling ill. This number may be different for you, so like with many other aspects of a vegan ketogenic diet, this one will require some trial and error. Perhaps start with 150g of net carbs as your refeed goal, and see how you feel.
Using a food journal can be incredibly helpful for determining the effect certain foods and macronutrient ratios have on your body and performance.
What Supplements Do I Need on a Plant-Based Keto Diet?
As a vegan, there are a few vitamins and minerals that just need to be supplemented. B12* and vitamin D are the two that immediately come to mind. In fact, most people would benefit from supplementing vitamin D, especially in the winter months. Of course, you could also choose to supplement electrolytes, probiotics and a few other things if you’d like. For more details on supplements on a low carb vegan or vegetarian diet, check out this post.
For more information on vegan keto diets, as well as meal plans and recipes, check out my ebook!
To check out my nutritionally balanced vegan keto meal plans, click here!
* There is enough conflicting evidence about plant-based sources of B12 that I feel more comfortable taking some in my multi!