Short answer: Yes. Anyone can go keto, including vegans. It might be a lot harder to stay vegan, but they can certainly go keto. Nothing stopping them. The more the merrier.
Jokes aside. Can someone go keto while remaining vegan?
That’s a tougher problem. Not intractable. But real tough.
Why is it so hard?
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Protein Considerations for Low Carb Vegans
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 harder to obtain on a normal vegan diet. It’s even harder on a keto vegan diet.
Can I Get Enough Protein With Nuts?
The easiest vegan sources of fat and protein — nuts and seeds — aren’t meant to be staple foods for humans. 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 to omega-6 ratio out of whack.
Excessive calories. Nowadays, it’s easy to plow through large quantities of nuts. The ability to consume entire sackfuls of nuts in a single sitting without having to remove the shells (or even in nut butters) 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,1 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. Probably not a great idea if you’re mindful of your carbs.)
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.
Protein Options for a Plant-based Keto Diet
First, I’m going to lay out some protein options that are not vegan, but sometimes work with a portion of plant-based eaters’ personal philosophy. If that doesn’t work for you, keep reading, because I’ll offer vegan protein options as well.
1. Consider eating eggs from a trusted source (even your own chickens)
You can usually ask people in your community and find a local source of pastured chicken eggs. Most hobby farmers consider their hens members of the family, and give their birds a pretty great life. Go see for yourself, then if this works with your ethics, buy some 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 and heart disease myth, know that it’s exactly that—a myth. 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
2. Consider trying an ostrovegan diet
What is an ostrovegan diet?
An ostrovegan diet involves eating a primarily vegan diet along with bivalves, like oysters, mussels, and clams. Most evidence suggests that bivalves 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.
If this works with your ethics, consider donning the title of “keto ostrovegan.” If anything, it sounds cool.
3. You’ll probably need some protein powders
Low-carb plant foods dense with protein just don’t really exist. And even though claims have floated around here and there, 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
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 study3 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.
Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein powder has plenty of lysine to make up for what’s missing in rice protein.
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.
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.
Olives and olive oil. This is mostly monounsaturated fat. Just make sure you’re buying an olive oil you trust.
Macadamia nuts. Again, mostly monounsaturated. Great for snacks.
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.
Supplementing on a Plant-based Keto Diet
There are some nutrients that are either not present in plant sources, not in a form that your body can use, or not available in quantities that your body needs. Work with a doctor or dietician here, and ask about supplementing the following.
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.4
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 levels5 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.6
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. Normal serum tests tend to show that 52% of vegans and 7% of vegetarians are deficient.7 According to the newer, more sensitive tests, 92% of vegans and 77% of vegetarians have low levels of the active form of vitamin B12.8 Don’t take a chance with this stuff; it’s critical.
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 or krill oil. Algae is where most marine life gets its DHA and EPA. It’s totally vegan-friendly, and studies show it improves blood lipids9 and increases blood levels of EPA.10
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.
Hope you 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 meat, 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.
Can you be a perfectly healthy whole-foods vegan keto dieter? Yes, but it takes a lot of planning. 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.
If you have any questions about any of this, don’t hesitate to ask down below in the comment section. I’ll do my best to address them in a later post.
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.