Vegetarian Keto: Benefits, Drawbacks, and Acceptable Foods
On a traditional ketogenic diet, meat is typically a common menu item, but that doesn’t mean the diet is off-limits for the vegetarian population.
As the keto diet has skyrocketed in popularity, many vegetarians have found a way to make it work for them, tweaking the typical keto menu to fit their meat-free lifestyle.
If you’re interested in this way of eating, but unsure if you want to make the leap, you’ve come to the right place. This article will cover what this diet entails, its benefits, potential downsides, and what foods you can (and cannot) eat.
What Is a Vegetarian Keto Diet?
A vegetarian keto diet is a plant-based, high-fat, low-carb diet that eliminates meat, poultry, and fish. Some animal-based foods, including eggs and full-fat dairy, are still allowed, as well as a range of low-carb plant foods.
As with a standard keto diet, the macros of a vegetarian keto diet shake out to be:
- 60 to 75 percent of your daily calories from fat
- 15 to 30 percent of your daily calories from protein
- 5 to 10 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates (carbs)
As you can see, a keto vegetarian diet is very low in carbs, allowing for the consumption of only 20-50 grams of net carbs per day. This is a sharp contrast from a typical vegetarian diet, which is usually carb-heavy from the inclusion of foods like legumes and grains (both of which are no-nos on a keto diet).
Drastically restricting carbs forces your body to switch from burning carbs as fuel to burning fat. This fat-burning state is called ketosis, and it’s the crux of the keto diet.[*]
What Foods Can You Eat on a Vegetarian Keto Diet?
While eliminating meat, poultry, and fish from a keto diet might sound like a big deal to some, there are still several low-carb foods that you can enjoy. These include:
- Animal proteins: Eggs and full-fat dairy.
- Plant-based proteins like full-fat tofu, tempeh, protein powders made from hemp or pea, and certain plant-based protein bars (psst: IQBARs are vegetarian- and keto-friendly!)
- Healthy fats like avocados, avocado oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, and olive oil.
- Low-carb veggies like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and mushrooms.
- Low-carb fruits like berries (in moderation), lemons, and limes.
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds.
- Coconut products like full-fat coconut milk, coconut cream, and unsweetened coconut.
- Condiments: Nutritional yeast, fresh herbs, salt, pepper, and spices.
As for foods that are off limits, you’ll need to avoid all meat, poultry, and fish, as well as high-carb plant-based foods, including grains, beans, most fruit, root vegetables, honey, and sugar.
While you might be tempted to replace meat with faux meat products, this usually isn’t a good approach, as they typically contain sugar, non-compliant ingredients, and unexpected carbs. It’s best to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
The Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Keto Diet
While there currently aren’t any studies on vegetarian keto diets specifically, plenty of research exists on each diet individually. Let’s take a look at a few of the top benefits.
#1: Promotes weight loss
Both vegetarian and keto diets have been shown to help people shed pounds. One review of 12 studies demonstrated that people following a vegetarian diet lost an average of 4.5 pounds more than non-vegetarians over 18 weeks.[*]
Similarly, a six-month study of 83 obese people found that a keto diet resulted in significant weight loss, with an average loss of a whopping 31 pounds.[*]
#2: Protects against chronic disease
Vegetarianism has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer and improved levels of many heart disease risk factors, including body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, and blood pressure.[*][*]
The keto diet has also been shown to reduce several heart disease risk factors.[*] Additionally, other studies suggest that the keto diet may safeguard brain health and help treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.[*][*]
#3: Supports blood sugar control
Both diet approaches have been shown to support blood sugar, drastically slashing the risk of diabetes.
For instance, a review of six studies linked vegetarianism to a significant drop in participants' A1c, a marker of long-term blood sugar control.[*] Another study of almost 3,000 people found that switching to a vegetarian diet reduced diabetes risk by 53% over five years.[*]
Meanwhile, the keto diet has been shown to improve the body’s blood sugar regulation and increase its sensitivity to insulin, a hormone involved in blood sugar control.[*]
Are There Potential Downsides of a Vegetarian Keto Diet?
Like any strict diet plan, there are a few potential drawbacks to consider:
#1: May increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies
Because a vegetarian keto diet restricts many food groups, nutrient deficiencies can arise. Some common ones include vitamin B12, iron, calcium, creatine, and taurine.[*]
Tracking your food intake in an app like Cronometer can help you see which nutrients you may be regularly missing. From there, you can consider supplementing those nutrients.
#2: May be more challenging to get enough protein
Since meat and fish are nixed on this diet, getting adequate protein can be a bit more challenging, but it’s totally doable.
The primary protein sources on a vegetarian keto diet include eggs, full-fat dairy, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and on-plan protein powders and protein bars, such as IQBAR.
IQBARs are vegan and keto, and contain only 1-2 grams of sugar and 3 grams of net carbs per bar. To top it off, each bar has six key brain nutrients shown to support sustained cognitive energy, performance, and well-being.
Include a protein source at each meal, but go easy on the nuts. They’re easy to overeat, contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids (which are inflammatory in excess), and have anti-nutrients like phytic acid that inhibit mineral absorption.[*][*]
#3: It can be restrictive
With meat, fish, and high-carb foods off the menu, this way of eating can be quite restrictive. This can make it more challenging to dine out, and meals can get a bit monotonous.
Fortunately, the rise in popularity of the vegetarian keto diet has led to tons of compliant recipes being available online, not to mention tasty convenience products like IQBAR. Use the restriction as a challenge to embrace new foods, try new products, and get creative in the kitchen.
Should You Go Vegetarian Keto?
There are many reasons to consider a vegetarian keto diet. Health aside, this form of the keto diet is a bit kinder to the planet and its animal inhabitants.
If you’re vegetarian and interested in trying keto—or are keto and curious about going meat-free—know that achieving a balanced vegetarian keto diet is wholly possible. It does, however, require some planning and due diligence to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and switch things up if need be. You might find that adding in some meat or fish here and there is a better approach for you, or maybe you’ll find that you want to take it a step further and experiment with a vegan keto diet.
The most important thing is to find a sustainable way of eating that supports your lifestyle, goals, health, and happiness.