You might have heard of the vegan keto diet and want some information about it, or you may want to know whether or not it works, and more importantly (we’d say!) if it is safe. Alternatively, you might want to know what the vegan keto diet actually is. For all those things, you’re in the right place. Here we’ll take a look at all you need to know about the vegan keto diet.
As we will see, initially the ketogenic diet was formulated in order to treat epilepsy, especially in children. There are many variations of the diet and these may have different medical applications, including being used to treat diabetes. However, we suspect that most people interested in the vegan keto diet are viewing it more as a “diet” in the weight-loss sense, rather than a nutritional and medical one. That will be our focus here, but before we get to that, let’s start at the very beginning.
What Is a Vegan Keto Diet?
Well, we hope at least two of the three crucial words are fairly self-explanatory so on that basis let’s move straight to the word that is less likely to be familiar. “Keto” is short for ketogenic and refers to a diet that is very high in fat and very low in carbohydrates and produces the metabolic state of ketosis (of which more later). The amount of protein consumed varies but most variations of a keto diet recommend somewhere roughly either side of what would be considered normal.
So, in short, the vegan keto diet is a plant-based way of eating that is high in fat and low in carbs. It has typically been adopted to treat epilepsy but is increasingly used by some people to lose weight and lower their body fat percentage, or simply because they believe it is a healthier diet that brings them other benefits. But what exactly does ketogenic mean and how does it work? And is the keto diet proven to deliver results and what, if any, are the side effects or negatives?
History of the Keto Diet
The ketogenic diet has enjoyed great popularity at various times since it was first really “discovered”. Perhaps the most well-known version of it is the Atkins diet, which was proposed as a method for weight loss in the 1970s by American physician and cardiologist, Robert Atkins.
However, it will probably come as a surprise to many people that the keto diet actually dates back to the 1920s. It might be even more surprising to learn that it was originally created as a way of treating epilepsy and is still used in that way in some circumstances in that context.
Whilst the diet is perceived by many to be a very modern fad and some might guess it was dreamed up by a “wellness guru” in California or somewhere similar, fasting-based diets have been around for thousands of years. It was in trying to replicate one aspect of fasting that Dr Russell Wilder hit upon the idea of the ketogenic diet.
In 1911, a French study looked at the impact of fasting on epilepsy and it was loosely proven that a very low calorie diet involving fasting could reduce the severity of the symptoms suffered by those with the condition.
Later this same decade, fasting was being used in the US with a medical student, Hugh Conklin, proposing that epilepsy was caused by a toxin produced in the intestine. Through fasting this could be stopped and subsequent analysis of Conklin’s work showed a high percentage of patients experienced improvements.
More trials, analysis and research followed and, in 1921, Rollin Woodyatt, a US doctor born in Chicago in 1878, discovered that starvation and a high fat, low carb diet, forced the liver to produce three compounds, collectively known as ketone bodies.
Woodyatt was more concerned at the time with diabetes but the aforementioned Dr Wilder, based at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, first used the term “ketogenic diet” in 1921 and sought to use it as a treatment for epilepsy.
It proved largely successful and the exact definition of a ketogenic diet was formulated at this time in terms of the ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fat. For the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the diet was used with good success to control the convulsions of epileptics but from the late 1930s a range of anticonvulsant drugs were invented, with phenytoin (invented in 1908 but not used for seizures until 1936) the first of those.
Due to these drugs, use of the keto diet largely died out and as time passed more and more and better and better drugs were created to treat epilepsy. It has had a revival more recently, with the case of Charlie Abrahams (the son of Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams) thought to have played a large part in that.
As a two-year-old Charlie’s epilepsy didn’t respond to traditional drugs or to alternative or complimentary medicine. His parents eventually heard of the ketogenic diet, which some medical facilities still offered. It worked wonders for their son and prompted them to establish the Charlie Foundation to fund further research into the keto diet and also to bring more attention and awareness of it.
In 1997, Abrahams helped make a film loosely based on their experiences (starring Meryl Streep and Fred Ward) called …First Do No Harm and this garnered even more attention for the diet. Much scientific interest and research followed and now the ketogenic diet is far more widely used to treat paediatric epilepsy.
Research has also suggested that the diet may help with a whole host of other conditions too. Whilst further research is needed there are suggestions it may have applications in the treatment of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, sleep problems and possibly even cancer.
Science Behind the Ketogenic Diet
In terms of how and why it is beneficial for epilepsy patients, there remains far more that is unknown than is known. Various theories have been put forward over the years but all have been more or less disproven.
In truth, very little is known about this whole area, with the precise workings of anticonvulsants, how and why people get epilepsy, and how the ketogenic diet not only stops seizures but also reduces seizure susceptibility all being something of a mystery.
However, why it might be useful for weight loss is better understood and we do actually have a very good idea of the mechanics behind how this unusual diet can help people lose weight.
Dr Wilder, mentioned earlier, looked at how a diet might mimic the effects of fasting. It was believed that fasting deprived the body of sugar, forcing it to use fat stores for energy. The body has around a day’s supply of its principle fuel, carbohydrates, stored in organs such as the liver, and in muscles.
When this is used up, typically after between two and four days of fasting or reduced carb intake, the body’s evolutionary survival machinery kicks in and it starts to use fat as energy. The liver converts fat into fuel in the form of ketones, which can be used instead of sugars (glucose) as energy. When there are a lot of ketones in the body it is said to be in a state of ketosis and this is what followers of the keto diet, vegan or otherwise, are striving for.
When this happens the body is using fat as its number one fuel source. This can lead to reduced body fat percentage and weight loss, with the speed at which ketosis will happen varying from one person to another based on various individual factors.
What Foods Make Up a Vegan Keto Diet?
A traditional ketogenic diet almost always contains a lot of cream, butter and fatty meat. Clearly, these are not options for vegans. Many vegan staples are ruled out by their relatively high carbohydrate content, with most fruit, veg, legumes and grains unsuitable for a vegan keto eating plan. So, what sorts of food would be included in a vegan keto diet?
If you are taking your keto diet seriously then it is recommended that you see a medical practitioner. This is especially crucial if the purpose of your diet is to control either epilepsy or diabetes but also if you want to undertake a weight-loss programme in the most efficient and healthiest way possible.
As we will examine in more detail shortly, there are slightly different versions of a ketogenic diet and, as discussed, what one individual needs to eat to have the desired affect will be different from what another person needs.
An individual’s goals, their age, weight, basal metabolic rate and body composition will all impact the exact ratio of macro-nutrients they should eat. As such, it is not our aim here to provide a precise dietary plan as that will depend on all the factors discussed and should be formulated in collaboration with a doctor and nutrition expert.
However, no matter what precise iteration of low carb diet you follow, you are likely to be looking for between about 5% and 20% of your calories coming from carbohydrates. Fat might be as high as 75%, with a range of between 50% and 75% common, whilst protein is typically between 20% and 35%.
The following vegan foods are all suitable for such diets, with the proportions in which you eat them to be determined by the exact diet you opt for.
|Food||% Calories from Fat||% Calories from Carbs||% Calories from Protein|
|Vital Wheat Gluten (for seitan)||4||15||81|
We have listed just a small selection of nuts, seeds and oils in this table but, in truth, virtually all are suitable for a vegan keto diet. As you can see from the table above, some seemingly similar foods can have quite different macro-nutrient profiles but even so, by and large all of these high fat foods can be eaten. Equally nut and seed butters, where these are made either solely from the nuts/seeds or only with the addition of oil are also good additions.
All vegan oils will be almost 100% fat and so including these is a great way to tip your diet towards ketosis. That is especially the case as such foods are also very, very calorie dense. That’s because there isn’t really very much in them other than fat. In contrast, other foods that might have a high percentage of their calories coming from carbs or, to a lesser extent protein, are less dense in calories, usually because they have a high water (zero calories) content.
For example, let us consider a food like celery, favoured by those looking to lose weight due to the idea it contains negative calories (meaning that to chew and digest it consumes more calories that it provides). Celery delivers 73% of its calories from carbohydrates, with just 10% coming from fat and, probably surprising to some people, 17% coming from protein.
However, 100g of celery yields just 16 calories. In contrast, 100g of olive oil has a whopping 884 calories, all of which are fat. Whilst most of the 100g of celery is water, the oil is almost entirely fat (both by weight and calories). As such, a 100g serving of “high carb” celery, dressed with just 10g of oil, delivers less than 12 calories of carbohydrates and 90 calories of fat, meaning it can easily be eaten within the confines of a vegan ketogenic diet.
There are lots of other vegetables that are equally lacking in calories and as such can be used in a vegan keto diet. The advantage of these is that they enable you to bulk out your meals without adding any real calories into the mix. Because they contain hardly any energy, even though they might be high-carb foods in percentage terms, those carbohydrates are easily dwarfed by the fat calories elsewhere in your diet.
Moreover, such foods do offer some micronutrients, with vitamins and minerals traditionally lacking in keto diets. Some such foods are listed in the table above and whilst the percentages alone don’t seem suitable for a keto diet we can now see that they are when eaten in conjunction with calorie-dense oils, nuts and seeds.
When assessing the likely nutrition of a given fruit or vegetable there are a few things that can be used as pointers if you don’t know the facts. Almost all fruits are automatically out as they invariably contain too much sugar. The same goes for vegetables that grow under the ground, with these more often than not being high in starch. We’ve rapidly narrowed our options and can do so further by noting that, as a general rule, brightly coloured items (for example carrots, tomatoes or peppers), tend to be higher in carbohydrates. That said, most of these, assuming they are non-starchy, remain low in overall calories, so can often be eaten in moderation.
What does that leave us? Well, the table above should have been something of an indication because the vegetables most likely to work in a vegan keto diet are leafy green ones and brassicas. Some fruit, mostly berries, may also be eaten, especially for those who are working at the higher carb end of the keto scale but ultimately there is no getting away from the fact that a vegan ketogenic diet is a very restricted way of eating.
What Sort of Meals Can I Eat?
Whilst the table of foods listed above may seem incredibly restrictive, that is just a selection of some of the foods that can be eaten. As long as you stick within the parameters of your target macros you can more or less eat freely.
What’s more, with the ingenuity that vegans have been forced to develop there are actually some rather tasty dishes that you can consume on a vegan keto diet. Whilst readymade traditional condiments and sauces are a big no, there are lots of flavourings that are permitted, with all spices and herbs fine, as well as lemon juice and yeast.
Full fat tofu is a perfect food for a vegan keto diet, meaning really tasty curries with lashings of coconut milk that you might normally deem too fatty are on the cards. Serve that with a small portion of courgette noodles or cauliflower rice and you’ll have a great meal, whilst tofu scramble is the perfect way to start the day.
You can also enjoy creamy Asian soups with lots of coconut milk, eat as much vegan cheese as you like (check that it is low carb – most if not all are), gorge on nuts, avocados and olives, and dress your salads with as much oil as you want! It isn’t all bad news!
As already mentioned, there is not really one single way of eating that we can call “keto”, although people speak of the “classic keto”, which is probably as close as we can get. The variations of keto diet are not generally determined by specifically what we eat but by the ratio of the nutrients consumed. Moreover, there are no hard and fast rules around much of this but here is a bit more information about different versions of this low carb diet.
A classic keto diet, be it vegan or one including animal products, typically looks to deliver around 85% of the calories needed based on a person’s age, basal metabolic rate and activity levels. The key factor about the classic keto diet is that it follows a ratio of between 3:1 and 4:1, with three to four calories of fat consumed for every one calorie of carbs and protein combined.
Given the diet is not a low-protein one and adequate protein must be consumed, a typical person might be looking at around 170g of fat, just 40g of carbs (less than in a typical bagel!) and 75g of protein. Note that the ratio is based on the calories provided by each macro, not, as many websites erroneously report, the weight of them.
The table below shows the difference between calculating the above macros by weight versus by the calories they provide.
|Nutrient & Weight||Calories||Calories as % of Total||Weight as % of Total|
|Fat – 170g||1530||77||60|
|Carbohydrates – 40g||160||8||14|
|Protein – 75g||300||15||26|
The table above shows approximate macros for a classic keto. As explained, the ratio of between 3:1 and 4:1 is derived from the calories obtained by fat to those gained from protein and carbohydrates, so in this plan the exact ration is 77:23, or 3.35:1, meaning that it is at the lower end of the classic spectrum ratio.
An MCT-based keto diet is popular as it allows a wider range of foods to be eaten. Without going too deeply into the science, MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, which are types of fat that produce more ketones than more typical LCTs (long-chain triglycerides). By consuming more MCTs and fewer LCTs, the same level of ketosis can be achieved but with lower fat consumption, meaning more scope for protein and carbohydrates in the diet.
Those following an MCT version of a keto diet typically consume their MCT fats in oil form and this works very nicely for vegans because the fat in coconut oil is naturally almost entirely of the MCT type. The diet was initially formulated in the 1970s by Peter Huttenlocher and was designed within the framework of trying to help children with epilepsy adapt to a ketogenic diet more easily.
This plan, sometimes called the cyclical ketogenic diet, usually includes one or two days per week when a higher carb intake is permitted. Clearly, this makes the diet more palatable and easier to stick to in the medium to long term but we have to doubt how efficient this is.
When carbohydrates are consumed in larger amounts this will stop ketosis. Moreover, depending on how many carbs have been ingested, your body may then take additional days to re-enter that state. All in all, given few people recommend the keto diet as a long term eating regimen anyway, we think the On-Off keto is probably not a great one.
We have already mentioned the Atkins diet and in phase one of that diet your macros will be very similar to a classic keto diet. At this stage, you would be looking for around 70% of calories from fat, 25% from protein and just 5% from carbohydrates. This is essentially a keto diet and so some opt to more or less stick to phase one but with a higher protein intake and slightly lower fat than the traditional keto regime.
High Protein Keto
This option simply takes the modified version of the Atkins diet and adds a little more protein instead of fat. Carbs remain low at between 5% and 10% of the total calorific intake but protein may be as high as 40% and fat around 55% to 60%.
Pros & Cons of Vegan Keto
There are almost countless fad diets around these days and in truth almost all can and will be effective for some people. Before we look at whether the vegan keto diet is good for those looking to lose weight, let us first look at its role in helping those with epilepsy.
Really strong evidence is often lacking when it comes to whether or not a given diet will help people lose weight. That’s because there are often so many variables when it comes to weight loss, especially in the long term. Moreover, there are fewer clear and obvious reasons to research weight loss as opposed to a medical condition, despite the huge financial impact obesity has on the NHS and the detrimental impact it can have on people’s lives.
However, when it comes to the ketogenic diet and drug-resistant epilepsy there is a better degree of evidence, although a systematic review showed that even for that, further research is needed. If you are interested in how a vegan keto diet might help with epilepsy, or diabetes, or even any other medical condition, we would strongly advise that you consult your doctor.
The ketogenic diet has mostly been put forward as a solution to paediatric epilepsy and clearly nutrition is vital for the development of children. As such it is crucial that such a significant dietary change is only undertaken under medical supervision and with the help of a qualified nutritionist.
Keto Diet For Weight Loss
Now, moving back to the various pros and cons of the vegan keto diet with regards weight loss and weight control, it should be noted that it is far from a clear picture. Whilst you will find no end of miracle “before and after” pictures online and glowing testimonies about the keto diet changed someone’s life, you will find it rather more difficult to find robust scientific evidence that the keto diet is quite the wonder-panacea it might appear to be.
There is almost no doubt that many people lose weight using the keto diet and that, therefore, someone could use a vegan ketogenic diet for that goal. Lots of studies that would meet reasonable scientific standards have shown that not only can a keto diet help people lose weight, it might well also be more effective than low fat diets or diets that focus more on calorie control.
Moreover, those that follow such a diet show also show improvements in other indicators of health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, those on this reduced-carb regime have healthier results in terms of their “insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides”.
Anecdotally, those on the keto diet report having more energy and focus than they had previously, as well as rarely feeling hungry and this last point can be a major benefit for many. The high fat content of the diet is believed to limit cravings due to fat’s satiating properties and also because there is a decrease in insulin and ghrelin, two hormones that stimulate appetite and are produced when carbs are consumed.
Some also argue that the ketones themselves directly reduce hunger. On top of that, the process of using fat and protein for fuel, rather than glucose from carbohydrates, is more metabolically intensive (which is to say it uses more calories).
If that all sounds very encouraging there are undoubtedly some serious issues with a vegan keto (and an omnivore keto) diet. The most obvious issue is that it can never be a balanced diet. By this, we mean that due to its heavily restricted nature it cannot provide the vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health.
The vegan keto diet is likely to be much better than the traditional version in this regard. None the less, given so many “healthy” foods, such as wholegrains, legumes, beans and starchy vegetables are virtually excluded, whilst most fruit and veg are also highly restricted, such a diet just cannot deliver all the micronutrients needed for optimum health.
This can be overcome by taking vegan supplements but there are some who question how effective this can be. Moreover, many people would prefer to get their nutrients naturally.
There are a range of other possible health problems, side effects and potential complications too. Whilst some – constipation, painful periods, slight loss of libido and bad breath for example – are relatively minor and can be treated or minimised, others are more serious.
A vegan keto eating plan is, once again, likely to fair better than one that has fatty meat and dairy at its core but even so, there are a range of potentially severe problems you might encounter following such a diet.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “increased risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis, and increased blood levels of uric acid (a risk factor for gout)” have been linked to the diet. One of the most serious risks is ketoacidosis, where excess ketones make the blood dangerously acidic. Advocates of the keto diet argue this won’t happen if the programme is correctly managed but, especially for those with type 1 diabetes, it can be a risk.
Dyslipidemia can also be an issue, meaning there is too much fat of varying kinds in the blood, whilst low blood sugar, or hypoglycaemia can also be a problem, especially in the early stages of undertaking a keto diet.
Indeed, if you decide to try a vegan keto diet you may well find you come down with what has been dubbed “keto flu”. Thankfully this is short-lived and typically passes as your body adjusts to its new diet but this is something to bear in mind, especially for those looking to the diet for rapid short term weight loss for a special event.
You might fit into that new dress or suit you bought but the party might not be quite so enjoyable if you are hit by constipation, dizziness, nausea, extreme tiredness, irritability and sugar cravings. Keto flu usually starts as ketosis kicks in but really you might be affected almost straight away. Whilst symptoms normally pass within a week, it could go on for a month.
Is the Vegan Keto Diet Sustainable?
One of the biggest drawbacks of the (vegan) keto diet is that people simply cannot stick to it. It takes real determination to endure a month of the side effects described above and many people give up. That might well be better for your health but it isn’t great in terms of the efficacy if the diet.
People also find it hard to stick to such a restrictive diet because a lot of willpower is needed. Whilst it might sound great being able to enjoy fatty foods, many of the foods people want most often contain sugar as well. Such carbohydrates are off the table, so as well as sweets, cakes, chocolate and fruit, sugary drinks, including all alcohol, are also to be avoided, or at least very restricted. Pasta, bread, rice and so many other foods are also excluded and cutting out so many items that were previously part of your everyday eating is far from easy.
People advocate the keto diet for its simplicity, claiming that calorie counting and watching what you eat are now things of the past. However, that isn’t really true as you still have to carefully monitor your carbohydrate intake and most variations of the keto eating are also at least somewhat calories-controlled.
No Long Term Research
The biggest issue with it in terms of long term sustainability, however, is that we really have very little idea what the impact of eating such a diet for an extended period would be. In dietary terms, long term is considered to be 12 months or longer and there are virtually no studies into what impact such a diet might have.
Getting a sufficient sample size to carry out meaningful research would be exceptionally difficult and it would probably be unethical to encourage or pay participants in a study to eat a keto diet over such a long period due to the likelihood of health issues developing.
Lack of Health Benefits
However, there are serious concerns that a diet with such little fibre, vitamins or minerals would be very harmful. Moreover, whilst short term testing reveals that the diet can improve lots of health indicators, such as those relating to cholesterol for example, these results are debated. It is thought that the weight loss leads to those positive markers in the short term but that in the long term, especially for those who have reached a healthy weight, cholesterol, blood lipids and blood sugar could all become unhealthy.
As we have noted in many areas of this site and in particular when looking at the health benefits of being vegan, eating a wide range of foods, especially wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and other plants, has been very strongly linked to a huge range of health benefits. Current scientific evidence suggests the same benefits are not gained through supplements and so those following a ketogenic diet in the long term, even a vegan one, are likely to be missing out on a lot of health benefits.
A diet like this, including lots of plants and whole grains, with moderate levels of fats, limited simple carbohydrates and a reasonable amount of protein, might well sound boring. But it is also the diet that is recommended by virtually every government and medical body around the world, and that’s because it is the one that scientific research currently deems to be the most beneficial for the vast majority of people.
Vegan Keto Diet Conclusion
All that said, with the correct planning, advice and medical supervision, all of which are crucial, the vegan keto diet may be a good short term fix for those wanting to lose weight rapidly. It can certainly do that in the short term, with substantiated reports of people losing a stone or more in a month.
In the long term, it seems too likely to pose serious health risks though and there certainly isn’t any evidence to suggest otherwise. Equally, the idea that it can “cure” epilepsy, diabetes and other serious health problems is unproven to say the least and a lot more research is needed.