The vegetarian diet is one of the best out there for weight loss; research has even found that it's twice as effective at reducing body weight than traditional low-carb diets. But as trendy diets pop up, vegetarians may want to expand their horizons. That's how the vegetarian keto diet, a variation of the super-popular ketogenic diet, started drawing attention.
The goal of a traditional keto diet is to speed up weight loss through fat burning. It's done by following a meal plan that's high in fat, very low in carbs, and moderate in terms of protein, says Vandana Sheth, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Those ratios mean your diet should break down to approximately 80 percent fat, less than 5 percent carbs, and 15 to 20 percent protein.
The strategy can be a successful one: According to research published in the journal Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, the keto diet may burn 10 times as much fat as other diets. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best option for everyone—including vegetarians. (Look at how the keto diet transformed Jen Widerstrom's body.)
Should Vegetarians Try the Keto Diet?
Despite the vegetarian diet's links to weight loss, it is possible for vegetarians to be overweight. That's because vegetarian diets, with their focus on fruits and vegetables, tend to be more carb-heavy and fat-deficient than other diets. Science has shown that overloading on carbs and sugars can lead to weight gain, and considering protein's positive effects on satiety and metabolism, skimping on the nutrient can also cause pounds to pile on.
So if a high-carb, low-fat vegetarian diet isn't helping you hit your weight-loss goals, switching to a vegetarian keto diet, which prioritizes fats and proteins while restricting carbs, could be the jump start your system needs. (You can even try these vegetarian keto recipes.)
"We know that reducing your carbs to a very low percentage of your daily calories can stimulate ketosis, [which is] when your brain and body begins to run on ketones (aka fat) rather than carbs for fuel," says Abbey Sharp, R.D. And that stands true whether you eat animal products or not. "Ketosis has been shown to help promote weight loss because it helps suppress your hunger hormones and therefore your appetite, while also promoting substantial water loss to reduce bloating," she adds. (Check out the results of one woman's keto diet weight-loss program.)
But that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Because, at their core, a typical vegetarian diet and a traditional keto diet contradict one another. "The essence of a vegetarian diet is healthful carbohydrates, and keto diets are very low in carbs," says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N. And depending how strict a vegetarian diet you follow, you most likely avoid all meats, poultry, and fish—the main sources of protein recommended in a typical ketogenic diet, adds Sheth. Not to mention that many plant-based protein sources, such as beans and lentils, are high in carbs—so they'd be a no-go on a vegetarian keto diet plan.
So the question is whether it's actually possible to meld these two diets together. Sharp says the answer is yes. "It definitely is possible, but it will be incredibly limiting," she explains. "The key will be to include lots of low-carb veggies, as well as higher-fat nuts, seeds, avocados, vegan protein, eggs, and full-fat dairy."
What Vegetarians Need to Know Before Going Keto
The first thing that people need to know about the keto diet is that, scientifically, there is no evidence that it's beneficial long-term, says Sheth. (Then again, it wasn't designed to be.) That's why, if you do go for it, you don't need to stick to it full-time. Instead, you can cycle in and out of ketosis.
When you are following a vegetarian keto meal plan, though, Palmer recommends focusing mostly on whole foods. Not only will those help you hit your nutrient checkboxes, but they're also rich in slow-digesting carbs and help maintain energy levels longer. And as with any healthy diet, you should avoid processed foods and refined carbs and sugars, which are stripped of important nutrients that prevent sugar from being absorbed into the bloodstream too quickly. (Not sure which drinks are keto-approved? Check out this list.)
Vegetarians following the keto diet could also run the risk of becoming deficient in certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Three big ones: B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. "B12 is largely found in animal products; heme-iron, which is most readily absorbed, is only obtained in animal products; and fish is a great source of omega-3s," explains Sharp. Unfortunately, those aren't the only elements at risk of being deficient. Zinc, an important antioxidant, most often comes from meat and poultry; calcium and vitamin D—two nutrients that are crucial for bone health—are mostly found in dairy products; and magnesium, another important nutrient for bone health (and energy) is typically ingested via grains, which are on the no-no list for vegetarian keto followers.
With all that in mind, one thing is clear: A vegetarian keto diet has the potential to get confusing, fast. So if you're considering it, Sheth recommends meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist to ensure that you are adequately meeting your nutritional needs. (You could also share this beginner keto-friendly meal plan with non-vegetarians.)
How to Stock Your Vegetarian Keto Kitchen
For an overall view of what a successful vegetarian keto diet meal plan looks like, you have to consider your three main macronutrients first: Healthy fats, carbs, and protein. Because you're not eating meat, you'll have to turn to other sources for fat. Plus, "since some of the vegan meats on the market will contribute some carbs, you'll have to be extra careful about limiting portion sizes," says Sharp. "This means that the majority of your fat calories will need to be coming from foods like nuts, seeds, eggs, and oils."
Carbs should come from whole foods, says Palmer—meaning fruits, like apples, avocados, or blueberries; legumes, including tempeh and soy; and vegetables, such as leafy greens and tomatoes. (Here's a low-carb bread recipe you can still eat while on the keto diet.)
And, of course, there's protein to consider. "Protein sources for vegetarians include eggs, dairy, soy foods, nuts, and seeds," says Palmer. "Vegetables, like leafy greens, also have some protein." (Be sure to check out this list of high-protein, plant-based protein options.)
Often, the hardest part of sticking to a diet is having all of the right foods on hand. Set yourself up for success by hitting the grocery store with this vegetarian keto diet food list in hand:
- Wheat berries
- Sweet potatoes
Low-Carb, High-Protein Foods
- Greek yogurt
- Nut butters
- Kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts
Plant-Based Omega-3 Fats
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Brussels sprouts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Dark leafy greens (like kale or cooked spinach)
- Soy items (like tofu and bean sprouts)
Foods High In Zinc
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Egg yolks
- Garbanzo and kidney beans
Calcium- and Vitamin D–Rich Foods
- Almond milks and butters
- Sesame seeds
- Dark leafy greens