Is a Vegan Ketogenic Diet Possible?
Updated: March 22, 2019
It’s becoming more frequent that you hear someone say, “I’m on a vegan ketogenic diet!” While 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, it seems that vegan ketogenic diets and plant-based low carbohydrate diets are becoming increasingly popular.
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. Though my eating patterns certainly went through some changes, as I worked with doctors to find what low carb foods really worked best for my body and my health, in the end what keeps me feeling my best is a very low carb vegan diet. Hopefully the following info helps you to do the same. 🙂
Since I first wrote this article, I’ve been pretty busy, even writing a vegan keto cookbook! My cookbook not only has recipes, shopping lists and a meal plan, it also has all the information in detail that you need to get started on a vegan keto diet.
Jump to a Section!
- Determine Your Daily Carbs on a Vegan Keto Diet
- Counting Carbs at the Beginning
- But How Do I Actually Get Started?
- What Oils and Fats Can You Eat?
- What Nuts and Seeds Can I Eat on a Vegan Keto Diet?
- Low Carb Veggies
- Low Carb Fruits
- Low Carb Vegan Protein Sources
- Do I Have to Eat Soy or Gluten to Be in Ketosis as a Vegan?
- Can I Eat Dessert on a Low Carb Plant-Based Diet?
- Are There Vegan Keto Meal Plans? Do I Have to Follow Them?
- Exercise and Keto Diets
- What Supplements Will I Need to Take on Plant-Based Keto?
- …And What About Omegas?
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.
To figure out how many calories and carbs you should eat in a day, you could use a keto calculator (like the one here on my site!) and then see how that feels. If after the keto-flu period, you’re still feeling
Don’t Count Too Much in the Beginning
This is counter-intuitive, 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. 🙂
How to Get Started on a Vegan Ketogenic Diet
Okay, so you know your macros (more or less) and you’ve got a solid grasp of the calories you need to consume, but how do you actually get started on a vegan ketogenic diet? It’s not as hard as you think!
There are two basic ways to get started on a plant-based keto way of eating. The first is just to dive right in. You could do this either by following a vegan keto meal plan or just by “winging it” and eating whatever keto-friendly foods you want, without worrying too much about macro ratios or carb counts. The latter option is commonly referred to as “lazy keto,” and tends to yield slightly slower results, but is a bit easier to follow. Using a pre-made meal plan (or making one yourself) is the more precise of the options, as you are able to hit set macronutrient targets without too much thinking each day. “Lazy keto” is certainly the most sustainable method for the long haul, and tends to be what people settle on eventually anyway.
The other option is to slowly taper down your carbohydrate consumption. You can do this either by eating progressively lower amounts of carbs every few days and not focusing on the other macros until you hit ketosis (so maybe starting at 75g net carbs the first three days, then going down to 50g for three days, then 40g and so on). This slow introduction tends to work better for a lot of people, as it is less jarring and allows you to really dial into what feels best for your body. This is typically how I like to work with clients as it’s a moderately quick approach, but it doesn’t involve a whole lifestyle overhaul in one day.
Finally, you could combine a “lazy keto” approach with slowly tapering by replacing high carb foods over time. So, for instance, if you eat a lot of pasta and rice-based dishes, you could start by replacing all of the pasta with zucchini noodles and the rice with cauliflower rice for the first few few days. Then, being subbing out or eliminating other high-carb foods like breads and potatoes, and then shift to eating lower carb fruits (list below). As you keep replacing things, you’ll eventually get into ketosis. This is really the slowest method and can take from a week to a month, depending on how quickly you want to replace things. Like “lazy keto,” it’s a fairly sustainable way of eating, as you end up developing habits over time and can tailor meals to your own tastes, as opposed to adopting a totally new way of eating overnight.
The method you choose for getting started on a vegan keto diet is really up to you, and depends on your fitness goals and your lifestyle. You’re also not beholden to just one method. If you start out doing lazy keto and don’t see the result you want after a couple of weeks, you could always then try using a meal plan. It’s really up to you!
What Oils and Fats Should I Eat on a Low Carb Vegan Diet?
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 phyto-chemicals when they’re not processed to high heaven, so they aren’t just “empty calories.” I only say this because when I was first getting into healthy eating years ago, it was drilled into my head that I should avoid using oil in my food because there was no nutritional benefit and it was high in calories, and I figure you may have been told something similar!
To go right to the source, and get more vitamins, minerals and fiber, eating foods like coconut, avocado, olives, nuts and seeds are also great!
And don’t worry – if you want to eat whole foods on a plant-based vegan keto diet, you don’t have to have oils on hand. It’s plenty easy to obtain healthy fats from the whole food sources mentioned above! 🙂
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.
*higher carb nuts that you may want to eat more sparingly if you are on a strict keto diet.
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
- Nutritional Yeast | 8g | 1g | 2 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.
Do I Have to Eat Soy or Gluten on a Vegan Keto Diet?
Absolutely not! I have Celiac, so all of the recipes on this blog are gluten-free! I’ve been doing plant-based keto for years without gluten and have still managed to get enough protein!
As for soy, while it is a great source of protein, it’s also difficult on the digestive system for many people and contains phyto-chemicals that those with certain hormonal conditions may want to avoid (talk to your doctor about this though, as needs vary person-to-person and your doctor knows you best!). You’ll notice that most of the foods on the chart above are not soy products!
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 re-feed days. In the PubMed article I mentioned previously, athletes who incorporated a higher-carb “re-feed day” every 5-6 days noticed a complete replenishment of glycogen stores. For this re-feed 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 re-feed 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 re-feed 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.
And to see what supplements I take on a regular basis, check out this post!
What About Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
This is actually a pretty important topic for all vegans, not just low-carbers. Omega-3 fatty acids actually can be obtained through diet. You can also take a plant-based omega supplement (mentioned in the post linked above). To learn more about balancing your omega3-6 intake on a vegan keto diet, check out this post here. And to learn about what foods are surprisingly high in omega-3 fatty acids, click here!
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!