Can a Vegan Go Keto?
Anyone can go keto, including vegans. They might not be able to stay fully vegan, but they can certainly go keto. Nothing stopping them. The more the merrier.
The more relevant question may be, “Can someone go keto while remaining vegan?”
That’s a tougher problem. Not intractable. But real tough.
Why is it so hard?
For one, the most protein-rich vegan foods also happen to be relatively high in carbohydrates—the very macronutrient you need to limit on keto. You could load up on a complex blend of legumes and rice to obtain adequate protein containing all the essential amino acids, but you’d end up overdoing it on carbohydrates and knocking yourself out of ketosis. Protein is extremely important and hard to obtain on a normal vegan diet. It’s even harder on a keto vegan diet.
Two, the easiest vegan sources of fat and protein—nuts and seeds—aren’t meant to be staple foods. No one should base their diet on nuts for a few reasons.
- Excessive omega-6. Most nuts are very high in linoleic acid, the omega-6 fat that most modern people consume too much of already. This will throw your omega-3:omega-6 ratio out of whack.
- Excessive calories. Nuts can just disappear down your gullet. The ability to consume entire sackfuls of nuts in a single sitting without having to remove the shells is a modern aberration, one we’re not really prepared as an organism to regulate.
- Carbs. When you start getting into the “several handful” range, the carb content of nuts adds up. It’s not enough carbs to disrupt a normal eater, but it can ruin ketosis.
- Anti-nutrients. Nuts and seeds can’t run from predators, so they employ biological warfare to dissuade animals from eating them, manufacturing anti-nutrient compounds that impair nutrient absorption. This isn’t a deal breaker. We’ve adapted to many of these compounds, and I even think it’s likely that some of these anti-nutrients, like phytate, offer hormetic benefits in smaller doses. But if you’re eating enough almonds to satisfy your protein requirements, you’re overdoing it.
(And yes, in certain parts of the year, the Hadza of East Africa consume the bulk of their calories from the mongongo nut, but you’re not Hadza. It’s a different genetic situation, a different lifestyle, a different microbiome. The Hadza also eat thousands of calories of wild honey each day when it’s available. You lining up to do that, too?)
Successfully implementing a vegan keto diet requires the resolution of those two main problems. You need complete protein without all the carbs that beans entail, and you need a reliable source of fat without all the omega-6 fatty acids nuts and seeds entail.
For the protein, you have a few options.
Consider some concessions. Compare the spirit of your commitment to the “letter of the law” approach. The following will make your journey far more enjoyable, nutrient-dense, and sustainable.
1. Consider eating eggs from a trusted source (even yourself).
You can usually go on Craigslist and find a local source of pastured chicken eggs. Simply introduce yourself and ask to see their operation. I mean, it’s not like the hobby farmer who considers her hens members of the family is going to give those birds a bad life. Go see for yourself, then eat the eggs.
Heck, why not take the plunge and raise your own chickens? If you have the space, do it. You know yourself. You know you’ll do it without cruelty. You’ll give them a good, happy life. You won’t “cull” the non-producers.
A regular intake of pastured eggs will give you most of the nutrients you’re missing out on as a keto vegan—like choline, omega-3s, iron, and zinc, not to mention high quality animal protein.
If you’re worried about the whole eggs/heart disease myth, know that it’s exactly that—a myth. The most recent evidence suggests that any relationship between egg consumption and health issues stems from “a dietary pattern often accompanying high egg intake and/or the cluster of other risk factors in people with high egg consumption,” not the eggs themselves.
2. Still not willing to eat eggs? Consider eating bivalves.
Most evidence suggests that bivalves—oysters and mussels—have no central nervous system capable of registering pain and are not mobile, and that the farming practices used to grow them are environmentally friendly.
They’re incredibly nutrient-dense with many of the nutrients vegans miss out on. Oysters in particular will give you all the zinc and iron you need, plus a good amount of omega-3. Mussels are loaded with protein, omega-3s, and micronutrients.
3. If bivalves are out, you’ll need some protein powders.
Low-carb plant foods dense with protein just don’t really exist. And no, broccoli doesn’t actually have more protein than steak. Protein powders that extract the protein from plant sources and leave behind most of the fat and carbohydrates, however, do exist.
The obvious animal-based choices like whey or egg are out. The best bet seems to be a mix of rice, pea, and hemp protein powders.
Rice protein powder is almost complete with all the essential amino acids (those we can’t manufacture in our bodies and must get from outside sources), but it’s low in lysine. Rice protein powder did perform admirably compared to whey protein in one study among weight lifting adults, but they weren’t on vegan diets, and the rest of their diets probably contained plenty of animal protein to make up for any missing amino acids. Here’s one to try.
Pea protein powder has plenty of lysine to make up for what’s missing in rice protein. Here’s a good one.
Hemp protein is complete and usually comes with a nice dose of micronutrients, including magnesium, prebiotic fiber, and omega-3s, but it’s lower in protein than rice and pea protein powder, so I wouldn’t rely exclusively on it. Try this one.
For the fat, you have many options that aren’t excessively high in omega-6 fats.
Eat lots of avocado and avocado oil. These are mostly monounsaturated fat. I hear there’s a pretty great vegan ranch dressing made with avocado oil on the market.
Eat coconut. An excellent source of healthy saturated fat, coconut and its constituents like coconut oil and coconut butter are essentials for the vegan-keto pantry. A spoonful of coconut butter is one of my go-to snacks, and it’s totally keto-friendly.
Eat olives and olive oil. This is mostly monounsaturated fat. Just make sure you’re buying actual olive oil.
Eat macadamia nuts. Again, mostly monounsaturated. Great for snacks.
Eat hemp seeds. Fairly high in omega-6, but it’s balanced with a large dose of omega-3 and some of the omega-6 is anti-inflammatory GLA. The complete protein, prebiotic fiber, and loads of magnesium don’t hurt either.
Eat red palm oil. Palm oil gets a bad rap, as most Southeast Asian palm production impedes on dwindling orangutan habitats. The majority of red palm oil—the unrefined version higher in micronutrients—comes from sustainable palm farms that don’t impact orangutan populations. Mostly saturated fat.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, and all the other ones higher in omega-6. Eat nuts (and seeds) of all kinds, just not to the exclusion of everything else. There is such a thing as too many nuts, as I explained earlier.
No matter what you eat, you’ll need to take supplements.
Choline: The higher your fat intake, the more choline your liver needs to process it all. Choline is most abundant in animal foods that you aren’t eating, like liver and egg yolks. A good vegan source of choline is sunflower lecithin.
Creatine: Creatine monohydrate is cheap, safe, and effective. You should take it, because you’re not getting it from your food; the best sources of creatine are red meat and fish. Far more than a “weight lifting supplement,” creatine has been shown to improve both muscular and cognitive function in vegetarians.
Carnosine: Not many know about carnosine. It’s another meat-based nutrient that improves mood, enhances endurance, and serves as a brain antioxidant. Though we can make it in our bodies, studies show that vegans and vegetarians have fairly low levels and supplementation can help.
Taurine: Taurine is similar to carnosine—though it’s not essential (we make it, just probably not enough), it appears only in animal foods and plays a major yet under-appreciated role in preventing death and disease. Easy supplement.
B12: You just need B12. There’s no way around it, unless you don’t mind your central nervous system going haywire.
Don’t assume you’re replete in B12 unless you’ve taken the latest assays, which are more sensitive than normal serum B12 tests. According to normal serum tests, 52% of vegans and 7% of vegetarians are deficient. According to the newer, more sensitive tests, 92% of vegans and 77% of vegetarians have low levels of the active form of vitamin B12. Don’t take a chance with this stuff; it’s critical. Here’s a good one.
Algal oil: Since you can’t take fish oil, and you don’t want to rely on inefficient elongation of ALA into the more effective omega-3s DHA and EPA, you should take algal oil. Algae is where most marine life gets its DHA and EPA. It’s totally vegan-friendly, and studies show it improves blood lipids and increases blood levels of EPA. Here’s one.
Those are the big things to worry about. Once you’ve them all squared away, the rest is easy: just eat delicious whole plant foods.
You’d better like avocados and coconut.
You’d better eat tons of non-starchy vegetables: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and other above-ground vegetables.
Eat mushrooms. They aren’t vegetables, but you can treat them like it.
You can even eat fruit, so long as you choose the lower-sugar ones and moderate your intake. Berries are perfect. Watermelon and cantaloupe are surprisingly low in sugar.
Incorporate seaweed into your life. Kelp in your soups, nori sheets as snacks. Great source of minerals like iodine.
Oh, and grab a copy of Accidental Paleo, a paleo vegetarian cookbook with a good number of vegan recipes.
Can you be a perfectly healthy whole-foods vegan keto dieter? Probably not. There are just too many limitations. But if you make a few concessions, include a few supplements, and accept that vegan purity is neither necessary nor desirable (particularly for keto eating), you can get very good results.