This might be a game-changer for plant-based eaters interested in the keto diet.

By By Kelsey Ogletree
Updated: February 25, 2019
Photo: Foxys Forest Manufacture / Shutterstock

If you've jumped on the keto diet bandwagon, you already know foods like meat, poultry, butter, eggs, and cheese are staples. The common denominator there being that these are all animal-based food sources. Recently, however, a new twist on the trendy diet has emerged, and it's calling for nixing all of the above. This begs the question: Can you follow a vegan or vegetarian keto diet?

William Cole, a certified functional medicine practitioner, chiropractic doctor, and author of the book Ketotarian: The (Mostly) Plant-Based Plan to Burn Fat, Boost Your Energy, Crush Your Cravings, and Calm Inflammation, has some thoughts on Ketotarianism-so much so that he's actually trademarked it.

What is the Ketotarian diet?

The Ketotarian diet combines the benefits of a plant-based diet with those of the keto diet. "It was born out of my experience in functional medicine and seeing the potential pitfalls of the ways that people go plant-based or follow a conventional ketogenic diet," says Cole.

On paper, it sounds like a marriage as perfect as Meghan and Harry's: A ketogenic diet works by jump-starting your body's metabolism to burn fat instead of glucose (aka carbs) as its primary fuel, and plant-based eating has long been celebrated for its ability to reduce the risk of chronic disease. Weight loss without sacrificing nutrition and your health? Sounds great, right?

One big problem Cole sees with following a conventional keto plan is that consuming large amounts of meat, high-fat dairy, and things like butter coffee can wreak havoc on your microbiome. (Here are more downsides to the keto diet.) Some people just aren't able to break down that much meat (hello, gut problems), and too much saturated fat can cause inflammation in some people-showing up in the form of fatigue, brain fog, or difficulty losing weight (hello, keto flu).

Eliminating these potential problem foods and going Ketotarian is a "cleaner" way to get into ketosis, he says. Cole also notes you won't miss out on any potential benefits the conventional keto diet claims to offer-which are mostly tied to weight loss, despite some other bold suggestions that it can heal basically every health issue.

How do you follow a Ketotarian diet?

Depending on your lifestyle, there are three clean, plant-focused approaches you can take to follow a Ketotarian diet, says Cole. Vegan, the most restricted option, is fueled by fats from avocados, olives, oils, nuts, seeds, and coconut. Vegetarian versions add in organic, pasture-raised eggs and ghee; and pescatarian (which he also dubs "vegequarian," a super fun word to say), allows for wild-caught fish and fresh seafood as well. (P.S. Here's what you need to know about pescatarian diets in general.)

"This is really a grace-based way of eating," says Cole, nodding to its flexibility. "It's not about dieting dogma or saying you can't have something; it's about using food to feel great." (Here's exactly why restrictive diets don't work.)

In case you're wondering: Yes, you can absolutely get all the fats you need to go into ketosis (at least 65 percent of your calories) with plant-based fats such as olive, avocado, and coconut oil, Cole says.

A sample food diary on a vegequarian Ketotarian plan: Chia seed pudding with almond milk, blueberries, and bee pollen for breakfast; a pesto zoodle bowl with avocado oil and a side of avocado "fries" for lunch; and an albacore tuna salad with grapefruit salsa and a side salad dressed with avocado oil for dinner. (Here's more proof that plant-based keto doesn't have to be boring.)

Is Ketotarian different from just plant-based keto dieting?

The big reason Ketotarian is different from a vegetarian or vegan form of conventional keto? "It's more of a lifestyle," says Cole, noting the temporary, flexible nature of the guidelines. The first eight weeks, you're meant to follow the plant-based plan (one of the three options above) to a T. After that, it's time to reevaluate and personalize it to work for your body.

Again, Cole provides a choose-your-own-adventure situation. Behind door one, stay in ketosis long term (which Cole only recommends for those with neurological issues or insulin resistance); door two, take a cyclical Ketotarian approach (where you follow plant-based keto for four or five days a week, and moderate your carbs-think: sweet potatoes and bananas-for the other two to three days); or door three, follow what he calls a seasonal Ketotarian diet (eating more ketogenic in the winter, and more fresh fruits and starchy veggies during summer).

The cyclical option is by far the one he recommends the most because it offers the most diversity and flexibility. This way, "when you want that smoothie or those sweet potato fries, have them; then go back into ketosis the next day," he says. Note, though, that this ability to go in and out of ketosis quickly is something you have to train your body to do, which is why newbie keto dieters (Ketotarian, or traditional) should wait several weeks before opting for carb cycling. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Carb Cycling)

Who should try the Ketotarian diet?

If you've been wanting to see what all the keto diet hoopla is all about but live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle (or just don't love the idea of consuming huge amounts of animal products), this may be the avenue for you. Plus, a big gripe dietitians have about keto is its elimination of a lot of essential nutrients because of its restriction on starchy vegetables and fruit-a problem that's remedied by adopting cyclical Ketotarian once you pass the eight-week mark.

Cole recommends giving it time to work those first eight weeks, "just to experiment with it and see how you feel," he says. After those two months are up and you've built in metabolic flexibility (meaning the ability to shift between burning fats and burning glucose), you can gradually begin to add in greater variety-like those fruits and starchy veggies, and even healthy meats like grass-fed beef and organic chicken, if you want-while still being plant-centric the majority of the time. Since this is after you've put in your eight weeks of stricter eating, this isn't necessarily considered keto-ish anymore, but rather just a healthy, mostly plant-based eating style.

If you're already considering keto and want to give it a try, don't be afraid to experiment with different plant-based food options (Cole recommends fermented soy products like tempeh for protein), and adjust your keto plan accordingly based on your own body. And remember: The biggest difference between following vegetarian or vegan keto versus a Ketotarian plan is that the latter has the potential to be much more sustainable long term. "People don't need more dieting rules just for the sake of it," says Cole. "Just nourish your body with good stuff and see how it feels."

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