How To Follow A Vegan Ketogenic Diet
Two major health trends are the vegan or plant based diet movement and the ketogenic diet. While these plans don’t naturally endorse each other…it is possible to get the benefits of what both nutrition practices offer.
Most vegan diets rely upon a high amount of carbohydrates as the major source of calories so these individuals would not produce ketones. In this article, I am going to break down how to follow a vegan ketogenic diet to improve health and performance.
The ketogenic diet is beginning to get a lot of media attention for its tremendous health benefits. I think it is important to help empower people on how to properly implement a ketogenic diet into their lifestyle if they so desire. This article serves as a guide for how I would suggest following a vegan ketogenic diet for optimal results.
A vegan diet is one devoid of all animal products. This means no animal meat and no byproducts of animals (milk, eggs, cheese, honey, etc.). This will usually carry over into lifestyle as well as these people tend to avoid anything made using animal products. The vegan philosophy comes from an ethical philosophy of minimizing suffering for animals.
This style of diet that has recently gained a ton of press due to the film What The Health as well as many other media publications following a similar narrative. While I do have my qualms about the “facts” portrayed in this film and how it was presented, there are certainly benefits to be derived from a plant-based diet if carefully planned.
One thing they did not mention in the film was the benefit of carbohydrate restriction, they instead insisted that as long as you are not eating meat, you can essentially eat as much sugar as you want with no health consequences. I obviously do not agree with this idea.
The science actually shows that a low-carb, high-fat diet has the potential to lower risk of heart disease, lower inflammation, and improve blood sugar regulation more effectively than a low-fat, high-carb diet (1, 2).
Benefits of Plant-Based Diets
Compared to the Standard American Diet, plant-based diets have been shown to offer some level of benefit in reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. There has also been a correlation between plant-based diets and decreased risk of cancer which may be attributable to higher amounts of antioxidants and protein restriction (3).
Many people may notice that they lose weight and sometimes observe an improvement in gut health, but this can vary depending on an individual’s current health status. This is likely due to the removal of highly processed foods and an increase in dietary fiber intake.
For many people, there are certain risks of following a plant-based diet if it is not carefully planned, they include:
Increased Intake of Dietary Carbohydrates – Blood Sugar Imbalances
High Consumption of Phytic Acids and Lectins – Causing Gut Inflammation
Negligible Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
…and some people notice that they just don’t feel healthy when they eliminate all animal-based products from the diet.
A ketogenic diet is a very low-carbohydrate meal plan that derives the majority of its calories from healthy fat sources. In fact, at least 60-70% of your total calories will be coming from fat sources while often less than 5% will be coming from carbs. The goal with this is to drop blood sugar and insulin low enough that the body resorts to burning fat as energy instead.
When this happens, your liver begins to convert fatty acids into molecules called ketones. Ketones are a very efficient fuel source that produce more stable energy, and have tons of health benefits for the brain and body.
While originally designed as a medical therapy for pediatric seizures in the 1900’s, it has reemerged as a powerful brain boosting and healing strategy. I personally recommend a ketogenic or low-carb, high-fat diet to the majority of my clients who are looking to optimize their health and quality of life.
Traditionally, a ketogenic diet is relatively high in animal-based foods. Obviously, a vegan ketogenic diet would not be.
Benefits Of A Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is starting to get recognition for incredible healing benefits it provides. One of the most significant aspects in my opinion, is its potential cancer-fighting effects (4). Additionally, as someone who relies on his own wellbeing in order to serve others, I take advantage of a ketogenic diet daily to maximize my mental acuity and boost my overall performance.
Other Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet Include:
Improved Blood Sugar Regulation
Supporting Ideal Weight
Reduced Oxidative Stress
Improved Mitochondrial Health
Improvement In Multiple Neurological Disorders
Metabolically speaking, ketones are much more efficiently converted into energy compared to sugar. As a result, less oxidative stress occurs and therefore less inflammation. On top of this, there is a stimulation of mitochondrial biogenesis (growth of new mitochondria) (5).
Essentially, the energy production factories in your cells gain better fuel and your body significantly upregulates how many of those factories there are. This means more energy for your body to perform normal functions. It is this combined effect of reduced inflammation and increased energy production that is responsible for most of the benefits of ketosis.
Is A Vegan Ketogenic Diet Possible?
In short, yes, a vegan ketogenic diet is possible. In my opinion, it can be quite limiting, but nonetheless it can be done. The proportion of high-fat plant-based foods is quite low compared to a more traditional paleo eating style. This is because plants tend to store starch or sugar as energy whereas animals tend to store more fat.
At the same time, some of the best plant-based sources of protein also tend to be high in starch. This would include things like beans. So, when looking for plant-based foods that help provide, enough fat, adequate protein, while also being low in carbs; the list of available foods narrows quickly. With some planning and a little creativity however, going on a vegan ketogenic plan can be achieved.
Vegan Keto Breakdown
In general, some of the staple fat sources on a vegan ketogenic diet would be coconut, avocados, olives, and higher fat nuts like macadamias or walnuts.
Additionally, the products that are made out of these high-fat foods can be great too. For example, coconut oil, coconut flakes, or full-fat coconut milk are great. Same with avocado oil or olive oil. Finally, nut butters can be a great option. The key for many people will be getting creative with these things to create variety.
The general rule to follow is that a food contains at least 70% healthy fats and very few net carbs. Healthy fats would be mostly saturated fats with smaller amounts of poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Net carbs can be calculated by subtracting the fiber content from the total carbs in a given food.
The average avocado contains somewhere around 17 grams of total carbohydrates where 13 grams of that is fiber (per 1 cup serving). So, by subtracting 13 from 17, we get 4 grams of net carbs. Most people will want to shoot for 40 or less net carbs per day while following a ketogenic diet in order to maintain a fat-burning metabolic state.
This is really where challenges are met with a vegan ketogenic diet. Many of the best plant-based protein sources are consequently high in starches. This is obviously not conducive to being in ketosis.
Technically, the most ketogenic vegan protein source would be tofu due to its low carbohydrate content. This is assuming that there is adequate fat consumption from other sources. As a health professional, I do not recommend the consumption of any unfermented soy products. Organic tempeh, which is a fermented soy product, could be a key aspect of your diet however.
Finally, consuming a high-quality plant-based protein powder may be an important aspect of getting into ketosis on a plant-based diet while ensuring protein needs are met. Some of the best options for this are hemp, brown rice, and pea-derived proteins.
Protein consumption is important to monitor on a ketogenic diet. Consuming too little protein, which is not uncommon on a vegan diet, will facilitate the breakdown of muscle tissues and other consequences of amino acid deficiencies. At the same time, too much protein can be counterproductive to getting into ketosis as your body will tend to convert excess amino acids into glucose.
The rule to follow is generally about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, for a 160 lb. individual:
Divide by 2.2 lb./kg to calculate your bodyweight in kg:
160/2.2 = 73 (and this would be your daily protein requirement)
This is going to be adequate for an individual who is fairly inactive. For someone who is looking to put on muscle and is very active, this number can be increased to between 100-120 grams of protein on training days, which would be about 1.3-1.6 grams of protein per kg.
For those dealing with cancer, staying around 0.5 g/Kg can be therapeutic for reducing mTOR expression. To put that into perspective, a 150 lb. person would only consume 34 g/protein daily. mTOR is a biological pathway in the body which plays an important role in regulating cell growth and proliferation that may also have an influence over cancer growth (6).
If you are simply having problems with staying full, then increasing fat intake will be the place to focus.
If you are planning on using the ketogenic diet as a healing strategy, certain factors should be considered. For example, those that are struggling with autoimmunity or cancer often have sensitive and inflamed digestive systems.
In these cases, using an easily digestible protein powder can be very helpful. Personally, I will use Gut Healing Protein as it is keto friendly and extremely beneficial for repairing an inflamed gut. It is also vegan, being derived from pea and rice sources.
Also, if consuming nuts it will be important to soak and sprout them in order to improve digestibility and reduce the burden of digestion.
To help give you some ideas of great vegan ketogenic meal options, I have pulled together various recipes that are either vegan or easily converted with single ingredient swaps.
Note: Many of these recipes contain butter. For vegan-friendly versions, you can simply substitute coconut oil (or in some cases, cocoa butter).
I am big on liquid nutrition, especially when on a vegan ketogenic diet. Liquid meals are easy to digest and are a great way to add plenty of healthy fats to the diet. I also use these types of recipes as an opportunity to utilize MCT oils to provide my body with an easily convertible source of ketones. These are some of my favorite recipes:
This recipe is a great morning pick-me-up that also has anti-inflammatory benefits. You get the antioxidant benefits of turmeric and organic coffee, plus good healthy fats to get your day started. I personally make this on busy days when I need to be on my mental game. Simply switch out the butter for coconut oil or cocoa butter and you have yourself a vegan ketogenic coffee that will keep you full for hours.
Matcha is a green tea powder that is insanely nutritious with tons of benefits for the brain and body.
Containing less caffeine than coffee, in addition to the relaxing amino acid L-theanine, this option provides a smoother stimulation to start your day. All you need is hot water, matcha, coconut oil (or MCT oil), and full-fat coconut milk (sweetener optional).
If you are sensitive to caffeine or just prefer to do without, this dandelion “coffee” is a great option. This is essentially a caffeine-free herbal substitute that tastes similar to coffee. Using this Dandy Blend instant mix and a bit of full-fat coconut milk and you are ready to start your day.
Dandelion is also great for healthy liver function. To kick up the anti-inflammatory potential of this one, you can add cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and a bit of stevia.
For lunch, you want to get in plenty more healthy fats, a moderate amount of protein, and plenty of fiber. What I do personally, and what I recommend to many of my clients, is either a big salad or another liquid meal. I like to consume only one solid meal a day during the time I am most relaxed (at night) to facilitate better digestion.
Doing the liquid nutrition during the day really helps free up energy for physical and mental exertion while helping to maintain an optimal state of ketosis. Consider trying this strategy to reduce the energetic burden of digestion during the day.
This is a super anti-inflammatory and ketogenic recipe with only 4 ingredients. It features my Gut Healing Protein for added nutrition and to support a healthy gut lining. I make this 2-3 times per week personally. I would recommend adding in a Tbsp. of MCT oil for an added boost to get you through the afternoon with no crash or hunger.
This is a variation of the pudding recipe above except with blueberries for added antioxidant benefits. Blueberries are also great for healing the gut lining and supporting optimal brain function.
This is a rich, chocolatey smoothie recipe that is loaded with superfoods like raw cacao, chia, flax, and blueberries. Blend this with a high-quality vegan ketogenic protein powder and you’ve got yourself a solid meal loaded with magnesium, potassium, antioxidants, and plenty of healthy fats. Add in an avocado for an extra creamy texture and to increase fiber content.
If you are someone who would rather have something more solid for lunch, a big salad full of veggies and fresh herbs is a great option. You can try our avocado salad recipe, which is delicious!
This recipes contains grass-fed cheese; however this can easily be replaced. Load this one up with avocado, a splash of MCT or olive oil, olives, and some tempeh or sprouted pumpkin seeds for protein.
Dinner, for most people, tends to be the most relaxed meal of the day. This is a great time to get into a state of gratitude and reflect on the positive notes of your day. Getting into this state of gratitude will put your body in a relaxed state to facilitate better digestion. This is when I typically advocate consuming the largest meal of the day.
Here you will likely need to get creative but there is definitely potential for some great vegan ketogenic dinner recipes. For some inspiration you can follow this simple template:
Filler: Fibrous, Non-Starchy Veggies
Protein: Tempeh or sprouted nuts & seeds
Topping: Get creative with fat sources in making a sauce, for example this avocado pesto recipe. You can also make nut-based sauces for added protein.
Another great vegan ketogenic option for dinner is to make some kind of soup or stew. Curries are great using full-fat coconut milk as the base. Next adding in plenty of vegetables and a vegan ketogenic protein source like pumpkin seeds or tempeh make this a perfect meal.
For more inspiration, check out the following recipes:
SuperCharged Coconut Curry (Replace chicken broth with vegetable broth and your choice of protein)
Creamy Coconut Guacamole Wraps (Add in your choice of protein)
Dessert is the most satisfying part of the meal. It’s even better eating a delicious dessert that you know is providing your body with health benefits. This is also another great chance to load up on healthy fats.
Recipes containing eggs can be easily substituted by ground flaxseed, chia, or almond butter while maintaining ketogenic macronutrient ratios. Also, don’t limit these to only dessert time. These recipes can also serve as great high-fat snacks to satisfy your sweet tooth at any time during the day.
These taste delicious and are completely vegan and fairly easy to make!
Coconut Flour Keto Donut Holes
Rich, satisfying, and tasty meal replacement or a snack on a vegan ketogenic diet. What more could you ask for?
Switch out the butter with coconut oil or cocoa butter and you’ve got yourself a delicious cookie.
Ice cream can be vegan, ketogenic, and delicious. Start with full fat coconut milk and build from there, add in berries, vanilla flavoring, or cacao powder and stevia to taste. After a quick freeze, all you have to do is throw it in the blender and there you have it. Pure simplicity.
More Delicious Dessert Ideas:
Following a ketogenic diet correctly, you should have very little cravings for snack foods. Sometimes a snack can be satisfying, I get it. I have some recipes for that that are both ketogenic and vegan friendly.
One of my go-to combinations are Homemade Keto Crackers with Lemon Creamy Superfood Guacamole. This combination satisfies the desire for a salty and crunchy snack while effectively satisfying hunger. Keto crackers and these keto chips also go well with this cashew artichoke dip or our coconut keto ranch dressing.
While some people respond well to a plant-based diet, many people simply do not. If you are someone who has been following a plant-based diet, have taken the extra precautions to make up for any possible nutrient deficiencies, and are struggling to overcome any kind of chronic health conditions, you may consider adding in specific animal-based foods.
For some people, following more of a vegetarian-style diet can maintain ethical standards while providing more complete nutrition. This can be achieved on a vegan ketogenic diet but it is challenging.
If you are considering adding back in animal-based products, it would probably be most beneficial to add them back slowly. The three I would recommend to adding first are grass-fed butter, pasture-raised eggs, and wild-caught fish if you choose to consume meat.
A great first addition when transitioning back from a vegan diet is grass-fed butter. Grass fed butter is packed with fat soluble vitamins, fat-burning CLA, omega-3 fatty acids, and the short chain fatty acid butyrate.
Try adding grass-fed butter to steamed veggies or in a turmeric fat burning coffee. Most people love the flavor of grass fed butter and it provides valuable fat soluble nutrients.
Organic, Pasture-Raised Eggs
In addition to grass-fed butter, eggs from pasture-raised chickens are an excellent and complete source of nutrition. Eggs contain complete protein, omega-3 fats, Vitamin D, B Vitamins, Iron, Calcium, and more. Eggs are one of the most nutritionally complete foods on the planet.
Also, you should not be concerned about the cholesterol content. In fact, cholesterol plays an important role in forming sex hormones in the body as well as healthy brain tissue.
If you are really struggling with your health and are considering adding animal meats back into your diet, wild-caught fish should be your go-to. The long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA are absolutely critical for the health of your brain and nervous system.
While you are able to convert a small amount of plant based omega-3 fats into EPA and DHA, it simply is not an efficient process and does not satisfy the body’s needs. The best fish for this are Alaskan salmon, mackerel, sardines, and Alaskan cod.
If you are not considering adding fish back into your diet, you may be able to derive some benefit from supplementing with an algae-based omega-3.
Two dietary trends that are rapidly growing are the ketogenic diet and the vegan/plant-based movement. Traditionally, vegan diets tend to be extremely high in carbohydrates and low in fats (which is the opposite of a ketogenic diet). As we discover more benefits of a ketogenic diet, those who are following plant-based diets are looking to change the way they eat.
Here I have laid the foundation for following a vegan ketogenic diet. I am interested to hear your experiences and any new strategies you have found helpful on your own ketogenic journey!