Tips & Advice

The vegetarian or vegan keto diet

Is it possible to do a vegetarian or vegan keto diet? The world is waking up to the benefits of the keto diet including our vegetarian and vegan friends. Yet, many would be forgiven for thinking that the keto diet is not suitable for vegetarians or vegans as there is no easy way to source sufficient healthy fats. And while that is understandable (many people associate keto with a high meat intake and vegetarian/vegan with high starch intake) there is such a thing as a vegetarian keto diet vegan keto diet. Done properly in fact, keto and a plant-based diet can work well together. 

So, let’s tackle head-on the two biggest questions facing the vegetarian or vegan keto diet.

Vegetarian or vegan keto #1: Where do you get your protein?

In a non-keto vegetarian or vegan diet, you would get your protein from such foods as lentils, chickpeas, beans, spirulina, flax seeds, chia seeds and so on. However, many of these items are not permitted on keto because of their high carb content.

We will look at the issue of protein later because it’s the issue of protein is not the main challenge…

Vegetarian or vegan keto #2: Where do you get your fats?

This is actually more important than the protein question. To talk about fats in a plant-based diet, we need to take a step back and take a quick look at omega-3 and omega-6.

Omega-3: Overview and benefits

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid – that is, your body can’t make it and you have to get it from your diet (fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds…). It plays a crucial part of cell membranes and heart, brain and metabolic health.

Omega-3 benefits include:

  • heart health
  • mental health
  • weight management
  • decreases liver fat
  • infant brain development
  • anti-inflammation response
  • helps combat dementia
  • bone health
  • helps prevent asthma

Unfortunately, the typical Western diet does not contain enough omega-3s – which may be contributing to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Omega-6: Overview and benefits

Like omega-3, omega-6 is another essential fatty acid – your body can’t make it and relies on dietary sources (oils, nuts, cereals etc). Omega-6 is primarily used for energy. While omega-6 is necessary, the typical Western diet contains too much. The recommended ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 4:1 or less. Most Western diets have a ratio of10:1 or even 50:1.

Plant-based diets can be high in omega-6

If you’re not careful, it can be easy to consume too much omega-6 in a plant-based keto diet in an effort to get enough fat. Furthermore, even if you get enough omega-3, that omega-3 is generally derived from alpha linoleic acid (ALA) which is much harder for your body to convert.

To compound the problem, studies have shown that if you have a diet high in omega-6, it can reduce even further your body’s ability to convert ALA into a usable form.

The vegetarian or vegan keto diet: getting enough fat

In a perfect world, should be able to consume enough flax and enough chia to at least get by and create enough omega-3. But the hard part is that in a plant-based diet you normally have a lot of other grains – a lot of omega-6s – which is stunting that conversion process. So you’re not getting as much omega-3 as you would even if you were eating a lot of flax as it’s being outweighed by all the grains and omega-6s.

So, the challenge is, how do you get sufficient omega-3s without too much omega-6s? Here’s one reason why the keto diet and a plant-based diet actually work harmoniously.

With the keto diet, you naturally eliminate a lot of the omega-6s. You’re not eating the grains or starches that are high in omega-6. Furthermore, you’re not consuming the canola oils, the sunflower oils and other unhealthy oils which are full of omega-6. It’s really important you stay away from those and focus on more omega-neutral (see the list below).

Since you are consuming more of these oils, you’re not drowning your system in omega-6. You’re less flax, less chia, less hemp seeds (which all contain omega-6) so your body’s ability to convert ALA to omega-3 is greatly improved.

In other words, keto immediately helps improve the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio – which can be a challenge for many on a plant-based diet as they are often high in grains/starches that contain omega-6.

So, if you’re on a vegetarian or vegan keto diet, you should focus more on eating as many of these omega-neutral oils as possible:

  • avocado oil
  • coconut oil
  • walnut oil
  • olive oil
  • high brazil nut consumption

Next, let’s look at protein sources in the vegetarian or vegan keto diet.

The vegetarian or vegan keto diet: getting enough protein

So, as mentioned, on a vegetarian or vegan keto diet, it’s more important that you get enough fats. However, most people automatically focus on the issue of protein – and it really isn’t that big an issue as we shall see.

A keto vegan diet or keto vegetarian diet drastically reduces your need for protein

A study in The Journal of Clinical Investigation showed that those on a keto diet experience far less leucine oxidation. Leucine is an amino acid associated healing of skin, bones, muscle growth and lean body mass. It may also play a role in the production of growth hormone as well as helping control blood sugar levels. On a keto diet – when your body is in ketosis – it burns ketones, not muscle. Additionally, what protein is coming in, is utilised more effectively by your body.

So, on the keto diet, you have less muscle breakdown and increased synthesis of protein coming into your body. This is good news for vegetarians and vegans: once your body is in ketosis, you don’t need nearly as much protein as you normally do.

So far, for vegetarians and vegans, these are the important benefits of being on a keto diet:

  • Consuming fewer carbs
  • Correct the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio
  • Reducing the need for protein intake
  • Burning up less muscle as your body starts to run on ketones

Pea protein is your secret weapon

So, if you’re on a plant-based keto diet, where do you get your protein as you can no longer rely on combining starches. The good news is, you can probably get by with 1-2 pea protein shakes a day.

A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that pea protein was just as effective as whey protein when it came to building muscle, preserving muscle and building strength.

Pea protein does the business. Additionally, it has the added advantage that its mechanical (as opposed to chemical) manufacturing process leaves much of the fiber content intact and it benefits your digestive tract.

Now, with a little imagination, you can start combining pea protein with other ingredients in a shake (e.g. coconut, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts, almond butter, almond milk, cauliflower rice, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds in moderation, almonds in moderation etc.) to create a shake that is giving you sufficient protein and adds to your overall healthy fat intake.

Avoid getting your protein from soy

Good-quality organic soy is hard to find but perhaps more importantly is that soy contains phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are structurally similar to estrogen and can interact with receptors in the body to create an imbalance – especially in men. So, you want to limit your serving of soy to once a day or once every two days – and really aim for the pea protein wherever possible.

Summary: keto vegetarian diet and keto vegan diet

So, if you’re on a plant-based diet and you’re thinking about doing  vegetarian or vegan keto, we say give it a try. You’ll probably eat less food (the same satiating quality of fat kicks in once you’re in ketosis). Just make sure you consume enough healthy oils; invest in a high-quality pea protein.

So if you’re considering a keto vegan diet or a keto vegetarian diet, the good news is, yes, it definitely can be done!

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