At first glance, the vegan diet and the ketogenic diet are polar opposites, but with a little tweaking and a lot of thought, it is entirely possible to be vegan keto.
If you haven’t yet heard about ketogenic diet at least once in the last 15 years, you must have been living under a rock. The recent surge in ketogenic diets started with the 2,000 year-old fascination for fasting. Fasting has had a long documented history as a treatment for various ailments like epilepsy.
But despite the effectiveness of fasting, not everyone can realistically (and sustainably) fast for the long-term. Realizing this, Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic proposed a different approach to ketosis using the ketogenic diet. High in fat and low in carbohydrates, the ketogenic diet is believed to produce the same metabolic effects of starvation by forcing the body to use fat as a fuel source.
Therapeutic ketogenic diet was officially introduced as a treatment for pediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and remained widely used for the good part of the next decade until phenytoin entered the market in 1938. What followed was a decades-long dry spell in the research into the therapeutic uses of KD that lasted well into the 90s.
Benefits go beyond controlling seizures
During ketosis, two things happen in your body: glucose levels start to drop as you reduce carb intake. Next, insulin, which promotes fat storage, declines and fat metabolism ensue.
This process leads to many metabolic changes in the body, one of which has been shown to protect against neurological conditions like epilepsy, parkinson's and Alzheimer’s. Recent evidence also shows that the ketogenic diet has some benefit in reducing symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome, slowing cancer growth, decreasing inflammation and preventing heart disease.
A plant-based approach
Plant-based diets have long been touted for their long list of health benefits, ranging from reducing risk of cancer and heart disease, improving insulin sensitivity and high blood pressure, and improving chronic low-grade inflammation.
And of course, there’s weight loss. In the BROAD study, a whole food plant-based diet was significantly better at reducing body weight even without caloric restriction or regular exercise than other low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. And in another study, plant-based diet pioneer Neal Barnard found that vegans weighed 17% less than their meat-eating counterparts. With a vegan diet, you’d be hitting an entire flock of birds with one stone.
If you’re already vegan and still not losing stubborn body fat, the ketogenic diet could be what your body needs to jumpstart fat burning.
The vegan diet and ketogenic diet no doubt work well on their own and for some of us it wouldn’t make sense to entirely give up one for the other. So what’s a vegan to do? Fact is, they don’t have much in common. One is structured around a high carb-to-fat macronutrient ratio, and the other requires the flip side.
But could you enjoy therapeutic benefits of ketosis while remaining a faithful vegan? Could it be possible to reconcile two diets on opposite sides of the spectrum?
Short answer is, yes, but obviously it is a fine line to walk. To transition to vegan keto, nutritionists usually recommend swapping starchy vegetables for low-carb ones while loading up on fats and proteins from plants. This will allow keto vegan dieters to stay within macronutrient targets while providing the essential nutrients to support the body.
Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, not so fast. The problem is that most vegan protein sources are also high in carbs, which you are supposed to limit while on keto. You could be loading up on legumes and rice to get enough protein, then wind up getting too much carbs and kicking yourself out of ketosis. Case in point, the ketogenic diet is easier with animal products.
The second problem? Most common vegan sources of fat and protein just can’t be considered as staple because while they are rich sources of fat and protein, they are also high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
To successfully implement the vegan keto diet you need to find a way around these two core problems. In short, you need vegan fat and protein sources without all the carbs and omega-3 fats.
Rules vegans need to know before jumping in the vegan keto bandwagon
1. The keto diet wasn’t designed for the long-term
First things first, you’ve got to understand that although the ketogenic diet is extremely good for rapid and intense weight loss in overweight individuals, benefits usually plateau after 2 years. That said, dieters may follow the ketogenic diet for at least 2 weeks up to 12 months.
2. Macronutrient ratios
The ketogenic diet is uncompromising high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates. However, its macronutrient ratios can vary within specific ranges. Generally, these ratios fall within:
- 60-75% fat
- 15-30% protein
- 5% carbohydrate
The exact amount of fat and protein you need will depend on your health status (do you have heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease?), weight and activity levels (are you sedentary?). In general, strict control of calories is unnecessary with the ketogenic diet. However, counting calories, more specifically, portion control, does have some benefit to individuals who are still not losing weight.
3. Keep carb intake between 25 and 50 grams per day
The process of shifting from using glucose to metabolizing stored fat for energy usually happens after 2 to 4 days of consuming less than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Although this process is highly individual, for most people, consuming 30 grams of carbs per day allows them to reach and remain in ketosis. Therefore, carb counting is critical. You can go as low as 20 grams net carbs a day, but at this level, you wouldn’t be getting enough micronutrients from your diet.
4. Focus on whole foods
Being vegan keto means getting what little carbs you do get from unprocessed whole foods. Not only will this get you a whole spectrum of vitamins and minerals, whole foods are also rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates. This means that your blood sugar and insulin levels will remain stable. On the other hand, consuming refined and simple carbohydrates can lead to spikes in blood sugar and insulin, which is bad news for your blood vessels and weight.
To do this, create a vegan keto meal plan by simply replacing starchy and carb vegetables for non-starchy ones and above-ground vegetables, including leafy greens like spinach, kale, broccoli, turnips, collard greens, cabbage, watercress, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflowers, zucchini, cucumbers and brussel sprouts just to name a few.
Low-sugar fruits to include in your vegan ketogenic diet food list are avocados and berries. On the other hand, limit your intake of high-sugar foods (honey, syrup), legumes, grains and tubers.
Proteins are large molecules with many important physiologic and biochemical functions in the body. They are basically the building blocks of the body. Protein deficiency has some tragic consequences, but too much of it also brings its own troubles. More specifically, excess protein in a low energy demand situation will push the body into gluconeogenesis to convert unused protein into glucose, which will raise blood sugar levels and knock you out of ketosis.
Sedentary people and those who are actively trying to lose weight need between 0.4 grams and 0.6 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Active people and those who are trying to building muscle require between 0.6 grams and 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
As already mentioned, choosing vegan protein sources without all the carbs is an incredible feat in itself as they are few and far in between. Some vegan protein options you should try out include tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds like hemp seeds, flax seeds, nutritional yeast and soybeans. Supplementing with keto friendly plant based protein powders can be a good option to help you hit your protein macros while still staying in ketosis.
6. Fill the rest with fatty plant foods
Fat is what keto is all about, so nothing to worry about here; you have many options that aren’t swimming in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. Think avocados, which are among the few foods that exist in the middle of the dietary spectrum.
Then you’ve got macadamia and cashews, which actually have the highest levels of monounsaturated fats and are lowest in omega-6 among the nuts.
Hemp seeds are relatively high in omega-6 but is balanced with a high dose of omega-3. Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are another great addition.
Oils like avocado oil, coconut oil, mct oil, olive oil and red palm oil are great sources of monounsaturated fat that just naturally belongs in a vegan keto diet.
On a vegan keto diet, you run the risk of missing out on some vital nutrients. Most of these nutrients, like vitamin B12, iron, omega-3 fats, carnitine, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, carnosine and taurine are only found in animal and dairy sources. To prevent nutrient deficiencies, you may need to supplement your diet with nutritional supplements. When you’re eating loads of fat, your liver would need help processing them. To help your liver, you may also need to supplement with choline, which you can get from sunflower lecithin.
The vegan and ketogenic diets are uncompromising in their respective ideals and have little common ground. At first glance, it would seem impossible to combine both, but after identifying some core problems, it becomes easier to find a solution that is acceptable to both ends of the dietary spectrum.
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