This is one of the most common queries I receive: How do I go keto as a vegetarian?
One way to go keto as a vegetarian is to stop being vegetarian. You begin as a vegetarian, make the conscious decision to go keto, and then cease vegetarianism. Seriously, just try it out. A little animal won’t hurt you. Promise.
Okay, jokes aside: How do you go keto while remaining vegetarian?
Once you let the dust settle and consider the proposition with a calm, clear mind, going keto as a vegetarian isn’t all that outlandish.
Most low-carb diets are hard to do as a vegetarian because protein is a big component, and quality protein is harder to obtain without meat in your diet. The focus of keto is carbs and fat—less of the former, more of the latter—and not so much the protein. There are plenty of ways to reduce carbs and increase fat while remaining vegetarian, and if you keep a few things in mind, you actually have a lot of freedom. More than you’d think.
Here’s what you should keep in mind when constructing your diet. After this, everything else is gravy.
This is pretty non-negotiable, at least if you’re trying to optimize your keto vegetarian diet.
Eggs provide long chain omega-3 fatty acids. You have to choose the right eggs, of course. Your average battery-farmed corn-and-soy-fed chickens won’t produce omega-3-rich eggs. If you’re lucky, they’ll have some ALA. But for the animal-based omega-3s that we truly need, you must eat pastured eggs or eggs from chickens on a special diet designed to boost levels of long chain omega-3s.
Eggs provide potent animal protein. I know I just said that protein isn’t a big concern on keto. But you still need a solid source of animal protein, and egg protein is one of the most bioavailable ones in existence.
Eggs provide choline. Our livers go through a lot of choline when they metabolize fats, and you’re going to be metabolizing a lot of fat. Without enough choline, we run the risk of developing fatty liver disease and compromising overall liver function.
Eggs provide vitamin B12. Five average grocery store eggs net you over 100% of the RDA.
Eggs provide retinol. Retinol is the animal-based type of vitamin A that our bodies use far more readily than plant-based vitamin A.
Look for “Super Eggs.” Sometimes Whole Foods carries a brand of egg called the Super Egg. Laid by chickens fed a special diet that includes algae, fish, and specific minerals, each egg has 125 mg of DHA (4.3x a normal egg), 250 IU of vitamin D (6x), 4.7 IU of vitamin E (6x), 378 mcg of lutein and zeaxanthin (1.5x), 1.2 mcg of B12 (2.5x), 185 mg of choline, 20 mcg of selenium (1.25x), 0.8 mg of zinc, and 35 mcg of folate. They taste great and make staying nourished on a vegetarian keto diet much easier.
Find the Dairy That Works For You
Some folks simply can’t eat any type of dairy. Okay. But make sure that’s the case and you’re not just exercising a preference. In populations without traditional access to dairy in whom adult genetic tolerance of dairy never developed, vegetarianism was absent. East Asians, Southeast Asians, most of Africa and the Americas—they were not vegetarians. Then, consider the most successful vegetarian cultures, like in India. Dairy plays a major and constant role in their diet. From yogurts to cheeses to milk to cream, they probably wouldn’t have been successful vegetarians without it.
It’s easy to understand why. Dairy is a reliable, delicious source of healthy fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid, important minerals like calcium, and bioavailable protein like whey. Ferment your dairy and you introduce probiotics, lower the lactose, and create novel nutrients like vitamin K2. Dairy is the perfect accompaniment to a keto diet.
If you have no issue with dairy, great. Go wild. Make it a significant part of your diet. If you do have legitimate issues with dairy, figure out what kind of dairy you can consume. Most people can get away with fermented dairy, like yogurt and kefir, and hard, aged cheeses, like pecorino romano, aged gouda, and parmigiano reggiano.
Take creatine, carnosine, and taurine. These are micronutrients found only in meat.
Creatine monohydrate: It’s cheap. It works. And it’ll help you perform many of the physiological tasks creatine does in us meat eaters, like increasing muscle power and enabling cognitive function. For a nice overview of what creatine does in addition to boosting gym performance, check out Chris Masterjohn’s recent podcast.
Take niacin and thiamine. These are really hard to obtain without eating starches or animals or a ton of seeds. The top sources of thiamine are trout, pork, sunflower seeds (huge omega-6 hit to get the required amount), and beans. Top niacin sources are pork, poultry, fish, liver, peanuts (but you’d need to eat about a cup), sunflower seeds, and beef. Not exactly vegetarian keto friendly unless you love omega-6.
Eat mushrooms. Everyone should be eating mushrooms, perhaps even patients with depression. But they become crucial for keto vegetarians because they’re the best non-animal, non-starch, non-omega-6-rich seed/nut source of niacin. A couple cups of grilled portobello mushrooms gets you 76% of your daily requirement of the vitamin. Other mushrooms aren’t far behind.
Consider eating oysters and other shellfish. This is a big stretch for most ethical vegetarians, but I don’t think it has to be. First, oysters aren’t motile, meaning they don’t move to escape danger. This indicates that they probably don’t feel pain, since pain is a costly physiological mechanism that only arises or is preserved in organisms who can respond to it by leaving the scene. Second, oyster farming is ethical and has very little impact on the environment. An oyster farm is pretty much identical to an oyster’s natural environment. If you can stomach a few oysters, you’ll get a fantastic source of vitamin B12 and other B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, and even omega-3s.
What Might This Look Like?
Here’s a sample day of keto vegetarian food. This is just one example.
Cup of full-fat Greek Yogurt
2 ounces Pecorino romano cheese
Ounce of almonds
Ounce of mac nuts
2 Brazil nuts
4 cups of raw spinach
2 TB avocado oil
1 TB butter
5 green olives
That gets you 1981 calories, 109 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate (10 g fiber), 158 g fat with most of your micronutrients, except for the ones mentioned above (thiamine/B1, niacin/B3). You could easily add in a couple TBs of raw potato starch or a fully green (unripe) banana for some more fermentable substrate for your gut bugs. If you’re willing to give it a shot, you could throw in a few small oysters and take care of all your zinc, selenium, copper, and most of your iron requirements. I think you get the idea, though.
Eat enough eggs to give you adequate protein and micronutrients. Choose the best eggs you can find, as they’re the backbone.
Eat some dairy that you can tolerate, focusing on fermented stuff(which digests the lactose and provides additional benefits) like yogurt, kefir, and hard cheeses.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.