Your friend the vegan
Picture this. Your friend the vegan who’s always up on the latest plant-based superfood suddenly mentions wanting to try this thing called a ketogenic diet – more specifically, a vegan ketogenic diet.
You’re told a ketogenic diet is super high in fat and very low in carbs. Because you’re a good friend, you think about what they’re saying, only to realize that vegan diets aren’t particularly fatty. Plants tend to store a lot of starch or sugar rather than fat.
You then ask “don’t those two diets sort of oppose each other? ”.
Your friend launches into listing all the plant foods that are high in fat, low in carbs and how a vegan ketogenic diet can totally work! After listening to this for a while you get bored, obviously, and don’t come away convinced this makes much sense or if it’s even feasible.
But you’re a curious cat so you wonder how one might construct a vegan ketogenic diet if you had to. We answer this question here, but first let’s recap the basics features of both diets.
Keep in mind that when discussing the respective merits and demerits of a dietary approach here, we’re ignoring supplementation. This is done so that a diet is assessed on what’s available from its food alone, not its food + supplements.
Recapping the vegan diet
A vegan diet splits food into the plant or animal categories, forbidding animals and permitting only plants.
A vegan is thus not allowed to eat animals like beef, salmon or shellfish or animal products like milk, cheese, butter or bone broth – and honey according to some vegans , apparently!
A vegan is allowed to eat plants like beans, potatoes or kale or plant products like tofu, sunflower oil or margarine.
Recapping the ketogenic diet
A ketogenic diet is based on the ratio of macronutrients, meaning how many calories come from protein versus fat versus carbs.
It is very high in fat and very low in carbs, typically around 70% fat, 20% protein and > 10% carbs.
Eating this way leads to your body turning a significant portion of its fat into energy-useful molecules called ketones (which you can measure at home!).
The calories from your ketogenic diet can come mostly from animals or mostly from plants – the diet is agnostic about that.
The easiest way to kick-start a basic ketogenic diet is to eat mostly fatty animal foods and fibrous low-starch vegetables. A ketogenic diet does have roots in our evolutionary past and is traditionally rather high in animal foods [4, 5].
So, what is a vegan ketogenic diet ?
A vegan ketogenic diet needs to prioritize fatty plant foods and exclude those that are too starchy or sugary. This isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
There are two main reasons. First, there are fewer commercially available fatty plants than starchy or sugary ones.
This really restricts your selection of foods. Second, you’re already at a disadvantage trying to get enough quality protein on standard vegan fare, let alone on a vegan ketogenic diet.
Many of the best plant sources of protein will not be available to you due to their high starch content.
Given these constraints, what fatty plants would you want to include in your vegan ketogenic diet? And what are the plants to avoid or minimize? What sources of plant protein can you chose whilst staying within ketogenic ratios?
Focus on getting fatty plant foods
We’re all thinking it, avocados. They’re about 77% fat, 19% carbs and 4% protein .
Avocados are the darling peace-seeking diplomats of the food world. They’re one of the few foods accepted along most of the dietary spectrum, enabling fruitarians to low-carb high-fat dieters to get behind eating avocados.
Then we’ve got all sorts of nuts. For example, macadamia nuts are on the high-end of fatty, coming in at about 88% fat, 8% carbs and 4% protein .
Even the higher carb nuts have a modest carbcontent overall, like pistachios that come in around 67% fat, 20% carbs and 13% protein . This is pretty close to a vegan ketogenic ratio.
Cacao nibs. Not the most popular snack. This is probably due to the fact that they has no digestible carbs and are very bitter. Nearly all of their calories come from fat . Lets just say they’re an acquired taste.
Pro tip: most people will find cacao nibs to be more palatable when mixed into a salad or some other dish with other flavors and taste to soften the bitterness. Get creative, give it a try.
Remember when acai berries were all the rage? Are they still God’s fit? In any case, they’re surprisingly fatty, coming in around 71% fat, 23% carbs and 6% protein .
Avoid or minimize starchy and sugary plant foods
This is difficult. Your priority will be to avoid fruit. It’s delicious, requires little to no preparation, it’s nearly always portable and so lends itself to snacking. Nearly all (commercially available) fruit will have thus have to be avoided due to its very high carb content.
For instance, (ripe) bananas are about 3% fat, 93% carbs and 4% protein . They’re not a good fit for a vegan ketogenic diet. Neither are mangos, since they’re about 3% fat, 94% carbs and 3% protein.
The protein problem
This is the big kahuna of health problems. Sure, vegan diets are also notorious for their micronutrient issues like imbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratios. However, not getting enough of the macronutrient protein is THE big problem. More specifically, getting enough bioavailable amino acids of the right kind (the building blocks of protein) is difficult if not impossible by food alone.
Is my plant protein bioavailable?
When we ask if this or that protein is bioavailable, we’re looking at how much of that plant protein can be usefully converted to protein in our body that can carry out its intended functions. There are multiple ways to measure this, such as Net protein Utilization, Protein Efficiency Ratio, Nitrogen Balance, Protein digestibility and Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score . For now though, what is key to grasp is the overarching theme, that protein in plant form is generally poorly bioavailable when compared to protein from animals .
To maintain muscle mass or grow more of it, one thing you need to do is consume enough of the amino acid leucine. This is also known as the leucine threshold .Not only do you need enough leucine, you need enough of a few of the other 21 amino acids to then provide the building blocks for the actual building of muscle building. Reaching the leucine threshold with enough of the other bioavailable amino acids will be difficulting this with plant foods alone will require eating a ton of greens because.
Given all these issues, what do you do ?
What plant sources of protein should I use on my vegan ketogenic diet?
Try this. Despite it’s low total protein and high carb content, potatoes have a relatively complete amino acid (or protein) score, at about 1% fat, 97% carbs and 2% protein .
Same goes for quinoa, the plant-based darling pseudo-grain. It’s lower in carbs though, showing a more favorable profile compared to potatoes, with about 14% fat, 71% carbs and 15% protein .
Hemp seeds, possibly a neck-and-neck winner with quinoa, contains about 74% carbs, 4% carbs and 22% protein .
But no, soybeans may take the win! Soybeans are about 38% fat, 32% carbs and 30% protein and nearly as complete as potatoes and quinoa .
The trick may be to include mostly soybeans, hemp and quinoa for the protein content and completeness of amino acid score.
Keep in mind: when you see a ‘complete amino acid score’ for potatoes on a website like www.nutritiondata.self, remember that this does NOT take into account bioavailability factors.
To be clear, take one animal food and one plant food with identical protein content and amino acid profiles. You’ll have considerably more useable protein from the animal source.
Parents beware !
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Do NOT feed newborn infants or children younger than 18 years-old on vegan diets or vegan ketogenic diets.
The younger they are, the more likely they are to suffer life threatening mineral, vitamin, protein and fatty acid deficiencies given the paucity of those elements in a diet entirely devoid of animal foods.
One parent in Italy was forced by the court to feed their child meat at least once a week .
Another couple were jailed for 1 year because their 1 year-old infant was malnourished on their vegan diet .
If you’re going to try to mix veganism with a ketogenic diet, make sure you pay attention to
- Getting enough protein
- Avoiding sugary fruit or too many starchy plants
- Getting enough calories without getting too many carbs (since your goal is ketosis)
- Beware of mineral and vitamin deficiencies (supplement these)
- Read a lot about nutrition because you’ll need the knowledge
- Make it a short-term experiment, preferably