On the surface, a diet like keto lends itself to bacon and burgers — most fruits and some vegetables are typically too high in carbohydrates for this high-fat, moderate-protein, very low-carb diet. That said, you can totally try this diet if you're a vegetarian . . . with a few catches! Interested in using this for a medical treatment or weight-loss breakthrough? Let's ask the experts how it's done.
Supervision Is Advised
First and foremost, don't go it alone. The keto diet is a medical diet with very specific health goals. "This type of eating plan should be carefully and professionally planned alongside a health professional, such as a registered dietitian," said Lori Zanini, RD, CDE. "The safest way to follow this type of eating plan would be for it to be medically supervised by a trained, multidisciplinary healthcare team."
Keep It Short and Sweet
Clinical and sports nutritionist Autumn Bates, CCN, agrees, emphasizing that not only should you be supervised, but you should limit your time on the diet as well. "Most studies show that being in ketosis for short periods of time is safe," she told POPSUGAR. "But of course, whenever you start a new program, it's best to do so under the supervision of a nutritionist that is well versed in your own nutrition and health history and can help you navigate the changes safely."
What does "short periods of time" mean? According to Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, CNS, it means "no more than 30 days," with a hard stop of 90. "This is a safe choice if you do it wisely," Dr. Axe told POPSUGAR. "You should really keep it to 30 days maximum."
Bates noted that she would not recommend the ketogenic diet as a long-term diet or lifestyle plan "as it can be difficult to adhere to," and there are additional struggles that impair dieters from eating well. "Going out to eat can often be a struggle as it can be difficult to find high quality, high-fat meals," she said.
As noted, this diet was designed with medical results in mind. "The ketogenic diet is a useful tool for some individuals for very specific results," said Bates. "I have used this diet for short periods of time with my professional athlete clients and those who are trying to lose weight. Using this diet as a vegetarian can help to boost weight-loss results, decrease brain fog, and jump-start fat loss. It also helps to reduce reliance on starchy and/or refined carbs like pasta and breads."
Another benefit you may reap? More stable blood sugar levels, according to Bates. Dr. Axe reiterated this and said the results can be significant, "especially for insulin levels and for weight loss . . . it can be a great diet for a 30-day period."
Track Your Meals
An important part of a vegetarian keto diet is keeping a thorough record of what your meals look like and being extremely mindful of each and every meal. "Track what you are eating and review regularly with your healthcare team — either by hand or using an app," said Zanini. "Many people think they are eating low-carb, but are often surprised when their macronutrient percentages are calculated and realize they aren't eating as they may have thought."
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Anna Monette Roberts
Focus on BCAAs
"All vegetarians [not just ketogenic dieting vegetarians] need to be more conscious about the amino acids they're getting in their diets," said Dr. Axe. With keto, you're cutting out a ton of amino acids when you eliminate whole grains and beans — Dr. Axe noted "rice, beans, quinoa, and whole grains" as primary amino acid sources in a vegetarian diet.
"Getting enough BCAAs is imperative," said Dr. Axe. "It's hard enough to get BCAAs — and collagen— as a vegetarian, so you have to be diligent." If you're an ovo-lacto vegetarian (meaning you consume dairy and eggs), "eggs and raw cheeses" will be a go-to for getting these amino acids. If you're not, try "medicinal mushrooms like shiitake and reishi, which are high in amino acids and protein and also have unique [compounds] that support stem cell production and new tissue growth."
Be Kind to Your Gallbladder and Liver
"When your body doesn't have carbs, [digestion] can be a little harder on your liver and gallbladder," said Dr. Axe. "You'll need milk thistle, turmeric, and [foods like] artichokes to support your liver during the diet time period. Also consider taking a digestive enzyme that is high in lipase to help your body break down and digest fat."
A quick guide to which foods ("bitter and sour foods" specifically) help your liver and gallbladder, from Dr. Axe:
- Bitter herbs
- Beets (sparingly, because carbs)
Make Smart Veggie Swaps
"As a vegetarian, the main area you'll want to take note of while following a ketogenic diet is your carbohydrate intake," said Bates. "Most vegetarians have high levels of carbohydrates in the form of starchy roots and veggies." So what do you do? Make swaps!
Here's how: "You'll want to use lower carbohydrate vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale, and cabbage," she said. "For example, try swapping your grain bowls with cauliflower rice."
Eat These Foods
- Plant-Based Fats. Think: coconut, avocados, olives, and nut butters like cashew butter.
- Nuts. But sparingly! Dr. Axe warned that the body has to work harder to digest nuts. Bates said "nuts and seeds will be the best form of protein while following a ketogenic diet as a vegetarian."
- Pistachios. We know, we just said nuts, but particularly pistachios. Zanini says this one is a must have in a keto-veggie diet. "This nut has it all. It's a good source of plant protein, fiber, and healthy fats — it's actually among the highest snack nuts for protein and fiber."
- Spirulina- and Plant-Based Protein. Dr. Axe says to consider supplementing your diet with pea, brown rice, and hemp protein to get amino acids.
- Raw Cheese. "If you're using dairy, make sure that it's raw, organic, and grass-fed, as this will provide the highest amount of healthy fats and reduce your exposure to antibiotics and hormones," Bates said. "Quality is KEY!"
- Eggs. If you also eat eggs, this is going to be crucial. "This readily available source of protein is keto- and vegetarian-friendly," said Zanini. "The yolks are a power house of nutrients, especially having vitamin B12, which is a nutrient of concern for anyone that doesn't eat meat. Bonus points if you buy eggs that are pasture raised and enriched with omega-3 fatty acids since these are even higher in vitamins A and E."
- Chia Seeds. "Just one ounce of chia seeds has an incredible 11 grams of fiber," said Zanini. "Chia seeds are also the highest source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for anyone not eating fish."
And Finally, a 1-Day Meal Plan
Bates put together this easy-to-follow, step-by-step meal plan so you can get started. Check it out!
Breakfast: Eggs scrambled in coconut oil with half an avocado, one tablespoon of sunflower seeds, sauteed spinach, and keto coffee (10 ounces of coffee blended with one tablespoon of grass-fed butter and one tablespoon of coconut oil).
Snack: Two celery stalks with two tablespoons of unsweetened almond butter.
Lunch: Big salad with mixed greens, chopped purple and green cabbage, half an avocado, a quarter cup of grass-fed feta cheese, two tablespoons of pine nuts, one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, and one tablespoon of olive oil.
Dinner: Cauliflower rice burrito bowl.