The ketogenic diet is becoming increasingly popular. Known for being an effective way to lose body fat, maintain or build muscle, and stabilize blood sugar, influencers and celebs have touted its benefits far and wide..
But this way of eating – which involves an extremely low intake of carbohydrates – often contains significant amounts of animal products. A growing number of doctors have criticized the diet for its potentially serious health risks.
Dr. Kim Williams, former President of the American College of Cardiology, says no one should be eating a ketogenic diet. He says it’s not recommended unless short-term weight loss is more important than long-term health.
What Is Ketosis?
The keto diet relies on a process called ketosis, which is when the body starts to burn fat for fuel
“Ketosis is a normal metabolic process,” according to Medical News Today.
“When the body does not have enough glucose for energy, it burns stored fats instead; this results in a build-up of acids called ketones within the body [they are then are eliminated in urine].”
Can You Be Vegan and Keto?
So is it possible to do keto as a vegan?
It is – but it comes with a unique set of challenges.
“A classic ketogenic diet would consist of higher fat, low carbohydrate foods like seafood, cheese, meat, eggs, and oils as well as non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds and berries ” Cassidy Payne, a nutritionist for allplants, told Plant Based News. She stresses that fruits and vegetables are important because of their fiber content. She says it’s “super important” on a low carbohydrate diet such as the keto diet.
“Someone following a ketogenic, plant-based diet would focus on non-starchy vegetables such as courgette, kale, cauliflower, and mushrooms as well fatty ones like avocados and olives.
“Other foods include nuts, seeds, berries, oils and perhaps some processed foods like vegan meats made from soy, unsweetened dairy alternatives made from ingredients like soy protein and coconut and maybe sweeteners such as stevia too.”
Adam Stansbury, better known as The Plant Powered PT, told PBN: “We know many plant foods come with carbohydrates, so you need to focus your intake of vegetables on low carbohydrate veg, such as green leafy and cruciferous vegetables.
“The keto diet is similar (to Atkins) in that it encourages a large volume of dietary fat to make up the daily calorie intake and to encourage ketosis, but the Atkins diet was not concerned with the quality of the fat or food source.
“The keto diet does focus more on quality foods and sources of dietary fat but still uses the same mechanism of ketosis in the body.
“For true ketosis to be triggered, you must eat a very low amount of carbohydrates approximately five -10 percent of your daily calorie intake.
“A standard keto macronutrient split could be fat 70 percent, protein 20 percent and carbohydrates 10 percent (maybe going as low as five percent carbohydrates).”
Losing Weight on a Vegan Keto Diet?
With such extreme macros splits, just how effective is it for shifting excess body fat (if that’s your goal)?
“If you follow this kind of plan – particularly during exercise – you may burn higher amounts of fat,” Payne told PBN.
“It has been associated with an expedited rate of weight loss compared to other diets. This is largely due to the initial loss of water when your liver stores of carbohydrates are used within the first few days, although, this can also result in a higher risk of dehydration.
“Fat loss is largely dependent on your energy intake, dietary composition and glycaemic index, as well as the type and frequency of exercise you’re doing, not forgetting the influence your genetic makeup and age also have on your metabolic rate.
One person who is sold on its benefits is Liz MacDowell– AKA MeatFreeKeto on Instagram – a vegan keto blogger who shares her low-carb plant-based recipes and ideas with more than 12,000 followers.
“Ketogenic diets aren’t a list of foods so much as a type of diet that shifts your body from burning carbohydrates to burning fats,” she told PBN.
“This means eating very few carbohydrates while increasing fat intake and the source of that dietary fat can be either animal or plant. So vegan diets are definitely able to be ‘keto-ified’!”
Vegan Keto Challenges
MacDowell follows the plan for its anti-inflammatory nature; cutting out things like sugar and gluten can take down inflammation and ease pressure on already-stressed out digestive systems.
“Some people (myself included) are on this diet to help manage certain conditions where inflammation is present. In many people, ketogenic diets are also able to help balance out hormone levels, and can help with resetting hunger cues.”
She says that the only real challenges being vegan and keto present can be remedied by taking a multivitamin. She also recommends carrying keto-friendly snacks like nuts as an easy way of curbing temptation. But, she says, it might not be suitable for everyone. Payne agrees.
Not for Everyone
“The ketogenic diet is not suitable for everyone, particularly those with type I and II diabetes, kidney damage, pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as those at risk of heart disease,” Payne added.
“A ketogenic diet, if decided upon, should be supported by a professional to ensure dietary requirements are met and the individual does not put themselves at risk.
“However, it’s not advisable to follow the diet long-term,” Payne says. It raises questions of how sustainable this diet really is. Particularly, she says, “with many individuals gaining all weight lost back within the first year. Really, it is all about balance.”
Adam Stansbury, at least, isn’t so convinced of it the keto diet benefits.
“For me, it is unnecessary and overcomplicates nutrition, especially for those following a plant-based diet,” he said.
“Similar states can be achieved by eating a well-structured whole food plant-based diet, balancing hormones by removing refined foods, and an exercise program that stimulates the metabolism.”
PCOS and Vegan Keto
But if you’re one of the 25 percent of women in the UK who lives with PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome), then it might be worth considering.
As MacDowell mentioned, it can bring down inflammation – one of the factors in managing the condition.
“Because a ketogenic diet by its nature doesn’t spike insulin dramatically, many PCOS sufferers find relief and balanced insulin while on a ketogenic diet,” MacDowell says. Although, she stresses that everyone’s experience is different. It’s always important to discuss with your doctor, too.
Ketogenic diet benefits have been explored over the last 100 years, including PCOS, Cassidy Payne explains.
Sufferers of PCOS often find weight loss, even just a few pounds, can reduce symptoms. The keto diet has also been known to improve blood pressure and insulin resistance in women.
“When used in the right way, with medical oversight, a ketogenic diet can be a powerful tool.”
An Easier Way?
But Stansbury believes that even in these cases, there’s a simpler option.
“Keto could work well with something like PCOS as it is low in carbohydrate, and high in fat, which would be effective in balancing blood sugar and insulin levels,” he says. Hormonal imbalances are to blame for many of the symptoms. But, Stansbury says, a low carbohydrate diet instead of the keto diet may be more beneficial.
“Something more along the lines of fat 60 percent, protein 20 percent, and carbohydrates 20 percent.
“A less extreme version would give the person a similar therapeutic effect, he says, “whilst raising long-term dietary compliance which is critical for it to work.”
Vegan Keto Top Tips
So, what are Adam’s top tips for achieving vegan keto?
“My top tip would be to not bother, but just to focus on eating a natural whole food plant-based diet,” he said. If your main goal is fat loss and body composition, then Adam says try carb cycling. It can be done without having to go any lower than a daily intake of 20 percent carbohydrates.
“I always ask whether the ‘juice is worth the squeeze’, and in this case I don’t believe it is,” Stansbury says. “There are other ways that are just as effective, less complicated, and more sustainable for vegans.”
“(Fat loss) is easy,” Stansbury says. But it’s best done sticking to a whole food plant-based approach, he says. And by removing refined and sugary foods and avoiding foods high in fat and carbohydrates.”
“If fats are high, then carbohydrates should be low and vice versa, ” Stansbury says. “That’s why the ketogenic diet works and why a high carbohydrate diet can work,” he says. “Because if one is present then the other is not.”