I’ve Been on the Vegetarian Keto Diet for One Month — Here’s What I’ve Learned
Published on November 3, 2021
Last updated November 5, 2021
By Pooja Shah
Carbs are my love language. Honestly, there’s nothing I adore more than a hot bowl of pasta served with flaky, fragrant garlic bread, or a margherita pizza fresh out of the oven. So when a recent routine visit to the doctor resulted in a high blood sugar diagnosis — which was due to me giving my body more carbs than it needed — I knew I had to consider a change. Ultimately, I decided to give “vegetarian keto” a shot. Because keto is associated with eating tons of meat, this diet plan may sound like an oxymoron, but hear me out.
A friend of mine had talked about how great her keto diet was, and how healthy she felt on it. I didn’t know a ton about it, but as I began to conduct my own research, I realized how meat-heavy this plan typically is: given its high fat requirement, it tended to feature a lot of grass-fed beef, bacon, and salmon.
As a lifelong vegetarian, I figured that a traditional keto diet would be incompatible with my dietary restrictions, and as a South Asian American who grew up eating homemade Indian foods that tend to be quite carb-heavy, I wasn’t sure I could enjoy a food plan that didn’t involve the assortment of naans, biryanis, dosas, and lentils that I was so used to.
But a deeper dive ultimately led me to find vegetarian keto, a high-fat, low-carb, nutrient-dense diet that didn’t involve any meat at all. For the past month, I’ve been on a journey to figure out which ingredients work on a vegetarian keto diet, and how to make quick, tasty vegetarian keto meals using them. The biggest challenge for me has been to find foods that are versatile and will keep me full for long periods of time. And thanks to Instagram, blogs, and insight from experts, I’ve learned how to make it work.
What is a vegetarian keto diet?
I spoke with Mahmud Kara, M.D., to learn more. Dr. Kara, who has spent the past 30 years working in functional medicine, offered me some great insights. “The vegetarian diet has been around for centuries, while the ketogenic diet is relatively new,” he says. “Studies have demonstrated that vegetarian diets are rich in essential nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and magnesium and are usually low in certain fats which can contribute to low body-mass index (BMI), lower cholesterol, and less risk for heart-related diseases.”
“On the other hand, research regarding the ketogenic diet has demonstrated that low-carbohydrate diets can lead to increased weight loss and less risk of glucose related issues, such as insulin resistance, in the body,” says Dr. Kara, who suggests that vegetarian keto has the potential to offer the best of both worlds: It eliminates meat, poultry, and fish while still focusing on healthy sources of fat instead of carbohydrates.
What are the benefits of the vegetarian keto diet?
“Both a vegetarian diet and a keto diet have weight loss benefits,” says Dr. Kara. “A recent study concluded that a diet with high-protein and low-carbohydrate intake may help people feel fuller for longer which can help reduce overeating, and another recent study has concluded that those who practiced a vegetarian diet lost ‘significantly more weight’ than those who did not.” But does that necessarily mean that these diets can be combined for added benefit? According to Dr. Kara, it does.
“When combined together, the keto vegetarian diet may offer additional weight loss benefits,” he explains. “This may be because vegetarians often have a hard time losing weight due to the need for higher carbohydrate intake to increase calories.”
And it’s not all weight-loss, either. Another potential benefit of the keto vegetarian diet is reducing the risk for chronic disease.
“Many carbohydrate options available in conventional supermarkets are loaded with harmful preservatives and additives that can contribute to a buildup of harmful toxins in the body,” says Dr. Kara. “Those harmful toxins can compromise and weaken the immune system, and can cause spikes in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.” But the keto part of the vegetarian keto diet specifically helps with this issue, he says.
“Because the low carbohydrate intake can lead to more stable blood sugar levels and improved cholesterol levels, you are ultimately lowering the overall risk for heart-related diseases.”
What are the downsides to going vegetarian keto?
Of course, keto, like any diet plan, is not for everyone. One concern around this specific diet is the risk for nutritional deficiencies. According to Dr. Kara, another disadvantage is that transitioning the body to a state of ketosis can cause flu-like symptoms such as headaches, trouble sleeping, muscle cramps, irritability, nausea, and more.
The initial “keto flu” can be difficult for some people to handle and may make it difficult for someone to remain consistent with their diet. “You can help with this initial transition by staying hydrated, replacing electrolytes with low-sugar sports drinks, avoiding stress, and getting quality sleep,” says Dr. Kara.
Vegetarian diets, on the other hand, can pose a risk for nutritional deficiencies, especially when it comes to protein, B12, calcium, zinc, and iron intake. But if you focus on triangulating your diet (and supplement if necessary), you can absolutely make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
“As the food industry continues to expand and vegetarian options become more available in most supermarkets, there are quality nutrient-rich options available for this lifestyle like tofu, lentils, chickpeas, hempseed, legumes, leafy greens, and eggs,” says Dr. Kara.
What foods can you eat on a vegetarian keto diet?
The keto part of this practice emphasizes high-fat food options which ultimately kickstarts the body’s metabolic process, called ketosis. Ketosis occurs when the body burns fat for energy because it does not have carbohydrates; in turn, the liver produces ketones which ultimately burns more fat.
But that doesn’t mean you get a free pass to eat all the fast food you want. “There is a caveat here: just because the keto part of this practice emphasizes high-fat, that does not mean you should eat items packed with trans fats like fried foods and baked goods,” Dr. Kara says. Instead, you should opt for items packed with healthy fats, like avocado, chia, dark chocolate, seeds, and nut butters.
“And as always, the best option while following the keto vegetarian diet is selecting organic, ideally locally-sourced food options in order to ensure that you are eating foods that are nutrient-rich and provide the most health benefits,” he says.
With that in mind, I headed to Whole Foods to pick up ingredients that would help me go keto while staying vegetarian.
My vegetarian keto shopping list:
- Vegan meat alternatives, including tempeh, tofu, seitan, soy protein, tofurkey, and Beyond Meat options
- Vegetables like spinach, kale, lettuce, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, squash, mushrooms
- Dairy, including eggs, hard cheeses, high fat cream, sour cream, butter, and nut-based yogurt alternatives like cashew nut and coconut milk yogurts
- High-fat items, including nuts and seeds like pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, hemp hearts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, avocado, and dark chocolate
- Oils, including coconut oil, olive oil, MCT oil, avocado oil, and peanut butter
- Fruits like raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, starfruit, cranberries, and tomatoes
- Sweeteners: stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit
- Keto breads and bread products like Carbonaut Bread
Some of my favorite vegetarian keto recipes
To be honest, my cooking skills are not going to land me on Masterchef anytime soon, but I’m a pretty dedicated home cook. I realized that I needed to get creative to avoid being bored of the same meals, so I turned to food blogs and Instagram for inspiration.
Blogger Katie Drewes, who is a keto pescatarian, offers many delicious vegetarian recipes. Her chocolate raspberry chia pudding can pull double duty, too: it works as either a breakfast or dessert. There are a few great sources of fat in this recipe, including whipping cream and chia seeds, and the cocoa and maca powders also have iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and calcium. For those who are trying to go keto vegan, you can substitute any combination of ripe avocado and almond milk instead of whipping cream.
One of my favorite dishes is this Spaghetti Squash Pad Thai. Here’s a trick for this dish I learned from Drewes: use the biggest frying pan or wok to get the perfect balance of flavours from the peanut oil, sesame oil, peanuts, sesame seeds, and eggs.
I would be remiss to not include any Indian food keto recipes. Vegetarian food blogger Chandni Patel shares her recipe of palak paneer, a North Indian dish made from spinach and freshly-made cheese. Though usually enjoyed with naan or rice, if you’re going vegetarian keto, you can eat it with a keto-friendly bread instead.
My best tips for going vegetarian keto
I’ve been using my reliable Instant Pot and air fryer a whole lot. Air frying keto-friendly vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and asparagus, then seasoning with light salt, pepper, and lemon juice, has been a really easy way to supplement my meals with vegetables. I also started eating vegetables with keto chutneys, which elevate any simple dish and allow me to continue enjoying the foods of my heritage. (This Keto Coconut Chutney recipe is excellent, as is this Coriander & Mint Keto Chutney).
I also downloaded the free app MyFitnessPal, which helped me figure out the right amount of healthy fat and protein in my diet; the app provides a customizable interface where you can select how much of each macro (fat, protein, carbs) you want to eat, and it also gives you details about the nutritional content of each type of food. It’s a tool that I found really useful during this journey, and has given me the ability to swap out meats for vegetarian substitutes.
But be warned: There’s going to be a serious lack of options when you eat out. I’ve found that the best spots for vegetarian keto food tend to be places with lots of salads, Indian restaurants, and Thai restaurants, which offer curries, tofu, and vegetarian dishes. Though these dishes tend to be rice-heavy, I either eat a smaller portion of the rice than I normally would, or just ask for extra vegetables. Some restaurants even offer cabbage rice or keto naans as substitutes.
Be sure to ask about hidden sugars or carbs in the sauces or dressings while eating out. I tend to call the restaurant beforehand to find out what their options are.
One month in, I can tell you that a vegetarian keto diet has already proved beneficial for me. I’ve felt less bloated and uncomfortable after eating a meal, and felt fuller but not lethargic after eating. I’ve also improved my cholesterol and blood sugar levels, according to my recent doctor’s visit. And an added bonus: I feel like my clothes fit better, which is a very welcome outcome of a healthier way of eating.